The worst of British

Film - Philip Kerr watches Mel Smith's latest comedy thriller fall flat on its face

Watching a film - even a good one - usually requires that you hoist Disbelief into the projected air above your head. With a good film, you quickly forget her; with a bad one, she is always on your mind.

Sometimes, Disbelief becomes just too heavy to suspend any longer, and she comes plummeting down from the faux-empyrean of the cinema ceiling, to land, like some outsized Lady Bracknell, in the seat beside you. And there she sits for the rest of the film, sneering at dialogue, carping at dramatic high points, wrinkling her fastidious little nose as the improbable plot congeals rather than thickens, and yawning ostentatiously as characters turn into flimsy caricatures before your very eyes. It can be enough to drive you out of the cinema, which is what happened to me while watching High Heels and Low Lifes, a comedy-action thriller that some ill-informed (and possibly badly influenced) commentators have described as an English Thelma and Louise.

Shannon (Minnie Driver) is a nurse at a London hospital. Her boyfriend is an artist of sorts who "sculpts sounds" obtained by tuning into other people's mobile phone conversations, using a digital radio scanner. One night, Shannon and her American actress friend, Frances (Mary McCormack), accidentally overhear a conversation about a bank robbery taking place in their neighbourhood. When the police refuse to believe their story - for once, my sympathies were with the police - the girls decide to have a one-to-one with the gang, and threaten to inform on them unless they hand over a substantial share of the money. The criminals are having none of it, however, and, hardly convinced by their preposterous menaces, tell the girls where to stick their equally preposterous demands. Most improbably, the girls persist in their parasitical endeavour, determined to get a cut of the money, even when two people are shot.

Think of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, and you would be a couple of billion brain cells away from High Heels and Low Lifes. But now that you have thought of it, why not rent it from your local Blockbuster Video, instead of going to a cinema to see this typically British (that is to say, hopeless ) film? Remember, this is 90 minutes of your life we are talking about. I was paid to see High Heels and Low Lifes. Driver and McCormack were paid to be in it. Laughing all the way to the Bank of Tinseltown, Mel Smith was paid to direct it. You don't have the same excuse.

While not being the most dismal film I have seen this year - that honour still goes to Dead Babies, based on the Martin Amis novel of the same name - High Heels . . . could, however, be safely included in any NS year-end round-up of the worst of British.

Mel Smith is perhaps better known as the fat, comedic partner of that well-known bore, Griff Rhys-Jones. He has done a lot of very lucrative work in commercials. To be fair to Smith, he is also the director of one of the most successful British comedies of all time - Mr Bean, which, you will doubtless recall, followed the laugh-a-minute antics of Rowan Atkinson's eponymous TV character. No kidding, I really did laugh for a whole minute.

Searching for a way of describing the experience of watching this, Smith's fourth film behind the camera, I realised that it was like Mr Bean without Rowan Atkinson. Which is to say that 60 seconds of laughter are better than no laughter at all. Lit much the same way as Mr Bean, High Heels . . . has a hyperreal, blue-filtered quality that makes it look and feel exactly like a cinema commercial. The colours appear saturated and the sets have a glassy fidelity, both of which seem to create a peculiar stillness and arrest what little action there is.

As for the camp artistic style and post-synch sound quality, I was reminded of a Seventies British sex-comedy; all the way through the movie, I half-expected to see Robin Askwith, chamois leather in hand, leering through Driver's bathroom window (and why not?), or Barry Evans fondling Linda Bellingham's lovely breasts.

The screenplay, written by Kim Fuller, whose credits include The Lenny Henry Show and Spiceworld: the movie (need I say more?), might have been printed from a wood engraving that would have seemed stereotypical when Peter Rogers was producing Carry On films back in the Sixties. At one point, Driver tells McCormack: "This is real life, Frances. People bleed and they die." Yes, but not so as you would care with any of these thinly realised characters.

A basic rule of screenwriting is that one should never include a line of dialogue that begins with the words, "This is real life." Especially when the person uttering these words is playing a nurse whose uniform - according to the notes accompanying the film - is a couture dress made by Vivienne Westwood, and who is apparently able to afford a chic little flat of her own in central London, not to mention a brand new £17,000 VW Golf. Haven't the producers heard that nurses only get 15 grand a year? Realism? Forget about it. You'll find more realism in a commercial for British Telecom. And just as many laughs.

It's good to be back.

High Heels and Low Lifes (15) is on nationwide release

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, So what tribe do you belong to?