BLACKBALL

Directed by Mel Smith. UK. 2003.


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Blackball tells the story of Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye), Torquay’s ‘bad boy of bowls’.  Shaking up the world of lawn bowls, Starkey is none too popular with reigning champion Ray Speight (James Cromwell) who believes that he is making a mockery of the game.  Needless to say, matters aren’t helped when Starkey starts dating Speight’s daughter Kerry (Alice Evans).  Starkey’s career begins to take off when an American sports agent (Vince Vaughn) arrives in Torquay having heard about this star in the making and promises to make him an international name.  However, as Starkey’s fame increases he becomes enamoured with the celebrity lifestyle and starts alienating those closest to him - including Kerry.  As his life spirals out of control, Starkey realises the error of his ways and seeks assistance from the one person who can help put things right - his rival, Speight.  Can the two former enemies put their differences aside and manage to work together?

As you can see, the plot is not brimming over with originality and from the very beginning the viewer can predict exactly how the story is going to pan out.  That is not to say that a film cannot succeed despite an unoriginal premise.  Indeed, many films have overcome a lack of plot originality due to the positive aspects of other areas of the film such as a witty script.  However, Blackball does not possess enough merits in order for it to rise above its trite plotting.

The chief problem here is that the script simply is not funny enough.  One might expect the jokes to be somewhat hit and miss but there is not one laugh-out-loud moment in the entire film.  However, although at some points it is clear that the film is trying to be humorous, a large portion of it seems deliberately dramatic and as though it is not actually striving for humour at all.  Maybe the marketing campaign is at fault here as the film was presented as a raucous lowbrow comedy when in fact, it plays as more of a drama with some light-hearted parts.  Ultimately though, it is hard to discern what this film was conceived as and as such, it seems like a mish-mash of ideas that does not have a clear angle.  It is as though the film itself does not know what it is trying to be.  Is it supposed to be a comedy?  Is it supposed to be a comedy-drama?  If director Mel Smith knows then he isn’t giving any clues.  Either way, the comedy aspect is not as successful as one would hope.  This is most evident in the bowling scenes.  These were clearly intended to be funny and one would think that even if the film is a one-joke premise, these scenes could be relied on to provide a few laughs.  Sadly, this is not the case.  Indeed, some of them verge on the embarrassing and although the script is at the root of most of the film’s problems, the directing must share some of the blame in these particular scenes.

With such weak material the cast needs to possess considerable talent in order to keep the film afloat.  Thankfully, this is the one successful aspect.  In lesser hands, the character of Cliff Starkey could have been grating, but Kaye (best known as TV’s Dennis Pennis) possesses the charisma to make the character completely likeable and is able to handle both comedic and dramatic material with similar ease.  Likewise, Alice Evans imbues her character with both strength and compassion and manages to make something of what could have been a generic role.  As for Johnny Vegas, he is much more restrained than usual- though whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion.  James Cromwell and Vince Vaughn are not necessarily actors that one would expect to find is a film like this but both acquit themselves well.  Cromwell adds some humanity to a character that has the potential to be completely unlikeable and his accent is faultless.  Vaughn meanwhile comes closest to achieving some humorous moments despite the thankless script.

In the end though, a likeable cast can only do so much.  They manage to rise above the material and steer the film away from one-star status but still, it is a completely forgettable film that squanders its comedy potential.  It is not offensively bad yet it never succeeds in being anything more than distinctly average.  In future, Smith would be better off being more selective in choosing scripts because in this case, Blackball falls short of the mark.

Lucinda Ireson
 
 
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