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In their feature debut, director Peter Cattaneo and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy pull off the tricky task of blending entertainment and social engagement. Starting with a fail-safe comic premise—a motley band of out-of-work (and out-of-condition) English laborers form a pseudo-Chippendales strip troupe—The Full Monty ventures into Ken Loach territory in its examination of the social and psychological effects of economic depression. A delicate balance of humor and melancholy, Cattaneo’s film is enjoyable and edifying.

The Full Monty opens with excerpts of a 25-year-old promotional film, Sheffield—City on the Move, touting the South Yorkshire industrial town’s financial boom. Cut to the grim present, with modernization responsible for the shutdown of steel mills and much of the labor force laid off. Gaz (Robert Carlyle), a divorced father, divides his time between fruitless visits to the local job center and amusing his young son Nathan (William Snape). A thousand pounds behind in his child-support payments, Gaz is desperate to find a source of income. Dave (Mark Addy), Gaz’s chunky chum, is experiencing marital anxieties: With his clerk-wife Jean (Lesley Sharp) now the family breadwinner, he’s unable to deliver in the bedroom. Starchy Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), Gaz and Dave’s former foreman, is afraid to tell his acquisitive wife Linda (Deirdre Costello) that he’s gotten the sack and pretends that he’s still going to work every morning.

Observing the box-office success of touring G-stringed Chippendales at a local club, Gaz talks his mates into forming a strip act that will climax with “the full monty”—total nudity. Selecting Gerald, an amateur ballroom dancer, as choreographer, they hold auditions and draft three more performers—Horse (Paul Barber), a middle-aged black dancer with a dodgy hip whose out-of-date specialties include the bump and the funky chicken, Guy (Hugo Speer), a clumsy but well-endowed young plasterer, and Lomper (Steve Huison), a suicidal redhead who lives with his ailing mother. After the troupe is busted by the cops during a rehearsal in an abandoned factory, its notoriety spreads and Sheffield women queue up to buy tickets for their one-night-only performance.

A carefully structured ensemble piece, The Full Monty is constructed of concise humorous and dramatic vignettes, all enhanced by Beaufoy’s pointed, idiomatic dialogue. Comic highlights include Gaz and Dave’s manipulation of grotesque lawn gnomes to sabotage one of Gerald’s job interviews, and Dave’s anxiety about publicly exposing his beefy frame (“Anti-wrinkle cream there is,” he ruefully observes, “but anti-fat bastard cream, there’s not”). More serious episodes include Gaz’s conflicts with his ex-wife about Nathan, Gerald’s wife’s discovery that he has been fired, and an unexpected insightful moment when the would-be strippers, ogling nudes in a girlie magazine, contemplate how women would regard them as sex objects.

Cattaneo deftly juggles the lives of his half-dozen protagonists and inserts unstressed visual clues to the world they inhabit (an early shot of a derelict car in a fetid canal tells us all we need to know about the film’s impoverished setting). The cast is uniformly effective, with sharp-featured, tightly coiled Carlyle, memorably scary in Trainspotting and affecting in Riff Raff, a standout. Dave Freeman and Nick Moore’s brisk editing condenses the multilayered narrative into 91 tight minutes, and Anne Dudley’s musical score resourcefully recycles dance oldies by Donna Summer, Gary Glitter, and Hot Chocolate, and includes a newly recorded Tom Jones cover of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” for the film’s finale.

The Full Monty is so thoughtfully realized that it’s difficult to find nits to pick. The introduction of a gay relationship near the end of the movie is sensitively handled, though I find its uncritical acceptance by the working-class protagonists somewhat implausible. And the strip-show climax, to which the entire story builds, is a bit of a letdown, especially considering that the full monty payoff allotted the onscreen audience is coyly denied moviegoers. In a film that otherwise pulls no punches, this half monty seems incongruously dainty. But these are minor blemishes in a movie that achieves nearly all it aspires to. The Full Monty may not alter the course of cinema history, but one leaves it with a feeling of satisfaction few contemporary movies afford.

Sometimes film criticism takes on a Christlike dimension. A reviewer endures intense humiliations and agonies to spare readers a similar fate. First-time director Keith Samples’ unspeakable A Smile Like Yours is my latest crown of thorns. Having suffered through this fiasco in order to warn you away, I honestly feel that my birthday and date of demise should be recognized as national holidays.

Samples and co-scripter Kevin Meyer have cobbled together a witless screenplay about a young couple, construction worker Danny (Greg Kinnear) and aromatherapy shop owner Jennifer (Lauren Holly), whose otherwise blissful marriage is marred by their inability to conceive a child. Fruitless efforts to correct this situation at a fertility clinic further strain their relationship. Each comes to suspect the other of infidelity, but they manage to patch up their differences and, in an emetically cute coda, wind up pushing triplets in a pram.

A Smile Like Yours may not be the worst romantic comedy ever made, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of a rival. Its leaden attempts at humor are alternately ossified (budget airline japes, fat lady jokes) and repellent (gags about giant specula, anal probes, and masturbation). A string of overamplified Motown oldies mercifully drowns out much of the flat dialogue and washes over the dingy cinematography.

Kinnear came to prominence hosting E!’s Talk Soup, where his snide mugging and outrageously protracted double takes mocked clips from tawdry chat shows. He proved less effective as an interviewer on NBC’s Later and has bottomed out in his attempts to achieve big-screen stardom. Sabrina, in which he was also paired with Holly, tanked, and Dear God barely eked out a week of theatrical release. As Danny, he sinks his third vehicle but, amazingly, already has a fourth picture in the can. Stripped of the wickedly twinkling eyes and crooked smile that sparked his Talk Soup stint, he’s a bland, gym-buffed nonentity who spends most of the film staring pensively into space. Wispy-voiced Holly, a graduate of the Stepford Academy of Dramatic Art, is even deadlier. Beneath her lacquered hair and perky headbands, her immobile features—leathery skin stretched tightly over a pointy visage—suggest an outdated android. Rarely have I seen a pair of actors so devoid of sexual chemistry and emotional conviction. Their robotic performances set the tone for the rest of the cast, including the hitherto effervescent Joan Cusack, who seems so appalled by her lines that she can barely force herself to spit them out.

Like a dream in which one tries to run away from peril but fails to make any progress, A Smile Like Yours lethargically plods on and on. Quite against my will, I lapsed into several catatonic catnaps, only to awaken to a continuation of the scene that had lulled me to sleep. The most eloquent review of this botch would be exit photographs of the stupefied faces of the 11 other audience members at the matinee I attended. Regrettably, I didn’t bring a camera.CP