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Before movies lost their innocence, they showed the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney demonstrating their talents by putting on plays in barns and school auditoriums. Frothy musicals such as Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, and Summer Stock featured plucky performers singing and dancing their hearts out in self-financed showcases devised to attract the attention of entertainment moguls. In our more cynical age, films about amateur theater are more likely to be set in prisons.
In John D. Hancock’s Weeds (1987), lifer playwright Nick Nolte produces a successful jailhouse drama that leads to his parole and the subsequent formation of a drama troupe made up of ex-cons. John Greyson’s extraordinary Lilies (1996) focuses on a prison play written and directed by an inmate to prick the conscience of a boyhood acquaintance, now a bishop, who betrayed the convict and his young male lover 40 years earlier. And in Daniel Lind Lagerlof’s Breaking Out (1999), shown at last year’s Filmfest DC, an idealistic big-house recreation director, against the warnings of his superiors, stages a play, unaware that his cast members have signed on as part of their scheme to escape incarceration.
Having effectively resurrected and updated the let’s-put-on-a-show formula in his international hit The Full Monty, English filmmaker Peter Cattaneo now tries his hand at prison theatricals in Lucky Break. He claims that the premise of the movie, inspired by a real-life jailhouse drama-therapy production of Guys and Dolls, came to him while he was taking a bath. You can believe him if you choose to, but the similarities between Breaking Out and Lucky Break defy coincidence. With the exception of the introduction of a key female character, the movies are nearly identical, both capped by jaw-droppingly implausible upbeat endings.
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Cattaneo’s film, written by ex-con Ronan Bennett, opens with small-time crooks Jimmy (James Nesbitt) and Rudy (Lennie James) botching a bank robbery. Once behind bars, Jimmy immediately gets into trouble by standing up to a malevolent guard who torments his cellmate. Taken to the warden’s office for a reprimand, Jimmy overhears the official, Graham Mortimer (Christopher Plummer), singing a tune from South Pacific. Spotting a self-penned playscript on the theater-buff warden’s desk, Jimmy butters up Mortimer by proclaiming his own fondness for musicals and suggests that the inmates should be encouraged to put on a show.
Later, in anger-management sessions run by rehabilitation counselor Anabel (Olivia Williams), Jimmy attempts to make peace with Rudy, who will not forgive him for attempting to run away when their bank job went sour. But a common goal draws them back together. Rudy has masterminded an escape route through the prison’s abandoned chapel, the building where amateur dramatic productions were formerly staged. The two get a chance to put their plan into action when, as part of a therapeutic program, Mortimer enlists Jimmy to produce his play, a musical based on the life of the warden’s idol, British admiral Horatio Nelson. Jimmy plays the leading role opposite Anabel as Nelson’s beloved Lady Emma Hamilton—casting that sparks an offstage romance. Despite a tumultuous rehearsal that turns into a prison rebellion and even a vengeful guard’s discovery of the escape plan, the show goes on.
The cast bears none of the blame for the film’s failure to measure up to The Full Monty. Nesbitt, who resembles a younger, swarthier Paul McCartney, combines self-assured cunning with working-class decency, and there are standout supporting performances by feisty, dark-eyed Williams and Bill Nighy, who plays a dandified, paternalistic inmate.
But the actors’ efforts are undermined by slack direction and formulaic writing. Though witty touches are provided by Anne Dudley and Stephen Fry, who composed the laughably secondhand songs for the warden’s misbegotten Nelson: The Musical, the prison scenes, stuffed with stock secondary characters and predictable subplots, are seldom amusing or affecting. Alwin Kuchler’s camerawork, largely restricted to tones of dark blue, does little to enliven the flat narrative, and even the feel-good machina ex machina denouement is derivative, pinched from Raphael Silver’s 1979 On the Yard, an adaptation of Malcolm Braly’s penitentiary novel.
Lucky Break’s relentless, marginally successful efforts to exhilarate us extend beyond the final scene: The closing credits are interspersed with glimpses of the protagonists’ blissful post-incarceration fates; even a character who commits suicide is resurrected to perform a posthumous musical number. Like being subjected to the moist adoration of a pack of Great Dane puppies, sitting through Cattaneo’s movie leaves you wishing that there were just a bit less happiness in the world. CP