In Still Crazy, four ’70s Brit-rock veterans in various states of psychic disrepair take to the road on a less-than-triumphant reunion tour. Stupidity, pretension, jealousy, and intoxication ensue. Yet this is not This Is Spi¬nal Tap.
No contemporary film could be entirely earnest about a band that hasn’t played a gig since a ’70s rock festival at which it shared the stage with the likes of Blodwyn Pig, Lindisfarne, and Mott the Hoople. Still, this warm, sweet spoof is sympathetic toward its hapless protagonistsand all that they represent. If the motley members of the long-defunct Strange Fruit are ridiculous, that’s just because they’re human.
Narrator Hughie (Billy Connolly), the band’s former sound man, starts the story: At the Wisbech Rock Festival, the Fruit’s equipment is fried by lightning during its first song. Backstage, clashing personalities reach a comparable temperature, and the band splits. Two decades later, keyboardist Tony (Stephen Rea) is interrupted during the rounds of his current job, filling Ibiza’s condom-vending machines. It’s the festival’s promoter’s son, who’s decided to stage a 20th-anniversary event. Might the Fruit be available?
Tony returns to London, where he enlists the band’s former assistant, Karen (Juliet Aubrey), now organizing business events at a hotel, to find the others. They soon locate bassist Les (Jimmy Nail), who’s working as a roofer, and drummer Beano (Timothy Spall), whose principal occupation seems to be avoiding tax agents. Singer Ray (Bill Nighy) professes to be busy working on his latest solo album, but Tony and Karen discover the fallen star’s perilous financial condition; faced with the imminent auction of the mansion he shares with imperious Nordic wife, Astrid (Helena Bergström), Ray also signs up. The only one missing is Brian, the (of course) brilliant, mercurial, self-destructive guitarist who was also Karen’s lover. The word is that he’s dead.
After Karen (now the band’s manager) negotiates the reissue of the group’s albums and hires flashy young guitarist Luke (Hans Matheson), the Fruit head to Holland to warm up on a tour of small venues. Old tensions recur between Les and Ray, who turns out to be more vulnerable than his cockiness suggests. (“I need a meeting,” he implores a mystified Karen. “A.A.”) Tony declares his long-unrequited love for Karen, while Luke makes out with Clare (Rachel Stirling), Karen’s teenage daughter. A series of disasters, musical and otherwise, demoralizes the musicians, but then they encounter a sexy hitchhiker wearing a Strange Fruit T-shirt. The little girls still understand.
With a musical style that mingles glitter, goth, and arena rockthe fictional band’s reasonably catchy songs are the work of such real-life pop-music lifers as Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Foreigner’s Mick JonesStrange Fruit is a little hard to place in time. There are some historical parallels, mostly among the supporting characters: Astrid suggests Anita Pallenberg, and Brian is of course Brian (Jones), although also Syd Barrett. But Still Crazy is less interested in rock-culture minutiae than broader matters of love, rivalry, camaraderie, and belief. Take away the amplifiers, drugs, and the occasional groupie, and you’re left with a traditional British working-class comedy.
That’s not to say that director Brian Gibson doesn’t have a feel for the music: The director of the slick punk-era drama Breaking Glass and the rougher-edged Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, Gibson handles the concert scenes with aplomb and maintains an effective balance between humor (some of it quite low) and uplift. Scripters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have written for many British sitcoms, but also have The Commitments among their credits. Like that film, Still Crazy doesn’t cut too deep, but it does have ample energy, class consciousness, and a winning spirit of affectionate mockery.
Still Crazy has been widely compared to The Full Montywhich is not unreasonable, but there’s a much closer relative among recent low-budget comedies: Hard Core Logo, a Canadian punk-rock road movie that got a very limited commercial release. (Locally, it screened only at the Hirshhorn.) Both are movies that, for all their jibes, are ultimately more elegiac than satirical. They depict the rock tour as equal parts small-time swindle and sacred ritual, mindless farce and ecstatic rapture. The business is venal, the group politics absurd, but that doesn’t prevent the communion between performer and audience from being sublime.
Although the film teases ’70s rock for its big gestureslike Spi¬nal Tap, Strange Fruit has its Stonehenge momentit’s really about the little guys. Fittingly, the film’s best-known performers, Connolly and Rea, are underwhelming, while Nighy and Aubrey uncover more nuance in their parts. In a sense, Still Crazy is really about Karen, who disrupts her middle-class security not for fame or fortune but because she’s still a fan. When the Fruit finally take the stage, it’s Karen who intercedes with the gods to prevent a recurrence of the ’70s debacle. This is the ultimate source of the movie’s considerable charm: It’s a tribute not to the faded rock genius but the inviolate true believer.
Greed is not so good, allows A Simple Plan, a tale of three men (and one wife) driven to do, well, very bad things by a bag full of cash. Agreeably economical but disappointingly formulaic, the film reunites two stars of a similarly B-minded flick, One False Move, with one Jackie Brown alumna. It’s director Sam Raimi’s most subtle film, but from the director of the Evil Dead series, that doesn’t mean much.
The action begins with characteristic efficiency: Swerving to avoid a fox that is one of the movie’s overt symbols of malevolent nature, brothers Hank (Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and the latter’s vulgar pal Lou (Brent Briscoe) crash their truck in a woods near their small Minnesota town. There they happen upon a downed airplane, which contains crowsmore malevolent natureas well as a corpse and a duffel bag containing $4.4 million. Hank, the only one of the trio who has a job, wants to call the cops. The other two quickly convince him otherwise, but Hank insists on a compromise: He’ll hold the money until it’s clear that no one’s looking for it. Only then will the three split it.
At home, Hank’s very pregnant wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), is briefly certain that they shouldn’t take the money. But in the sort of fast turnaround that’s all too typical of the scriptwritten by Scott B. Smith from his own novelshe’s soon making amendments to Hank’s “simple plan.” Sarah becomes the master strategist as the alliance unravels and Hank’s wait-and-see scheme crumbles in the face of avarice, impatience, and reawakened sibling rivalry. The notion of a breast-feeding new mother making cold-blooded determinations apparently struck Smith and Raimi as a sublime irony, but the depiction of Sarah is actually routine misogyny.
Thornton has the showy part, and, as in Sling Blade, he maneuvers interestingly (if not always persuasively) between idiosyncrasy and shtick. Slow-witted, flamboyantly stuttering Jacob meets the film’s most brazenly contrived fate, one that might be touching if the story hadn’t lost most of its emotional credibility long before its climax. The problem is that the slide into greed-addled amorality comes too easily. Early in the action, buttoned-down Hank commits a crime that seems entirely out of character. After that, the drama becomes less psychological than mechanical. Raimi and Smith may believe that human degradation is inexorable, but in A Simple Plan it’s just narratively convenient. CP