Sunday, March 6, 2011

Burke & Hare (2010)

Clever, pitch-black English comedy about two Scottish peasants who begin selling fresh dead bodies on the black market in 1840's Edinburgh. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis play the titular duo, who, after failing to make it as street vendors and hustlers, discover an enterprise to be made out of the local university's desperation for fresh cadavers for the purposes of public autopsies. They begin by hunting down the near-dead and waiting out their demise, but soon, they find that, to meet demand, making cadavers out of live subjects (read: murder) would be a more business-savvy approach. The film is nasty; aside from the macabre subject matter, the Scottish setting is grimy, foggy, and dirty, even in the halls of the Scottish aristocracy. However, the performers, and, especially, director John Landis do much to keep the tone lively and energetic, infusing the project with a less contemporary, more fearless style of comedy that, I'm sure, contributed to the film's current floundering for U.S. distribution (as far as I've heard).

Pegg is his usual sympathetic, blustery self, while Serkis, in a rare live-action leading man role (he's best known for mo-cap work as Gollum in LOTR and King Kong in...King Kong), creates a distinct character out of what could've been a typical cynical, money-mad barker type; I hope his comic, and, surprisingly, romantic (a flirty scene with him and Jessica Hynes was my favorite moment in the picture) sensibilities help him attain more actual on-screen work. Hynes, Pegg's costar from Spaced, outshines her former cohort in terms of energy, timing, and panache, but in her particularly British fashion, which may not translate to further work on this side of the pond (a shame). As the dueling aristocratic doctors, Tom Wilkinson(!) and Tim Curry(!!!!) are wonderfully in tune with the material, playing it straight and reveling in the comic bleakness when the situation calls for either. Isla Fisher, while initially distracting, is a serviceable femme fatale of sorts, and does not grind the picture to a halt like a more sympathetic, less merciless approach would have done. Cameos by British talents permeate the picture, with names like Stephen Merchant, Bill Bailey, and Christopher Lee popping up for, sometimes, just a line or two, along with the various directors Landis called in for his traditional filmmaker walk-ons (Ray Harryhausen, Costa-Gravas, among others).

The wonderful cast aside, it is John Landis who steals the show from off-camera. After a decade(!!)-long absence from narrative film, he pulled a Frank Oz and went to England where, it seems, the creative control allowed to him, due to his undeniable track record, the ability to render the clever script into fully-formed and well-devised comic set-pieces, which, while being more obvious and showy than the more recent, Apatow-led style of comedy, rings as true as the finer moments in his classic films (John Landis classic film rollcall for the unitiated: Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos!, Coming to America). His style allows for both high-concept black comedy blunders and more restrained, human moments that never even border on schmaltz or corniness. While I am not hopeful for this film's stateside returns (the mix of jet-black comedy and the grimy Scottish setting will probably turn off most Americans), I am grateful that Landis was allowed even just one more chance to prove his last few pictures (Blues Brothers 2000, The Stupids, Beverly Hills Cop 3) were not the best he could do.

Recommended to fans of black or British comedy, John Landis, or the eclectic cast; for me, the dual joy of seeing John Landis and Tim Curry doing memorable big-screen work again would've been enough to warrant recommending the film, but the whole project is, while slightly less effective than Pegg's recent, more heartfelt Paul, an unabashed success.

P.S. WATCH THE CREDITS for a fairly genius, wordless epilogue.

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