Calendar Girls

It’s almost a genre all its own: flighty cast of characters — usually elderly — from some part of the British Isles unveil a hairbrained scheme — usually to make money or get rich quick — and sooner than later wind up in way over their heads. I hate to be so reductionist, but this time it’s true: there are people who like this stuff, people who don’t, and people who are indifferent. Calendar Girls was directed by Nigel Cole, whose Saving Grace was the quintessential movie about stodgy-but-funny Brits, and while it is certainly amusing if you go for this sort of thing, I can’t quite give it a pass on the grounds of inherent genre frivolousness. Supremely funny and elegant for almost an hour, the film then begins to fight against the current in its last act, becoming clunky and heavy-handed at the most crucial points.

The script has a corker of a high concept: women’s club in a quaint British town decides to put together a nude calendar to raise money for the local hospital, where the beloved husband of one of the club’s members recently passed away. No one is happy about this idea, of course — not the husbands of the mostly elderly ladies, not the society under whose name they are operating, not even some of the participating women themselves. They are egged on by Chris Harper (Helen Mirren), the spunkiest of the bunch (we know this because she submitted a store-bought cake to a baking contest and won) and the best friend of Annie (Julie Walters), in whose husband’s honor they are pulling this little debacle.

Once the procedural details — finding a photographer and an appropriately cheap printer; staring down the prim and proper women’s club captain — are overcome, the calendar turns out to be a tremendous success, bringing in press from across the globe and heaping unexpected fame on the perpetrators. One newspaper runs a particularly crass piece alleging at Chris’ husband is tiffed at the lack of sex in their relationship. Eventually, despite the ever-increasing strife among the “calendar girls” and others in their hometown, they are off to Hollywood to do promotions, sponsorships and tv commercials.

In a way, then, Calendar Girls defies expectations: I was anticipating a movie about a group of elderly women hilariously trying to put together a nude calendar, but that conflict is dispatched in roughly forty minutes. The majority of the film deals instead with the aftermath of that decision, with the media frenzy that invades their hometown, and the resulting crumbled friendships and shattered dignities.

That’s not a bad approach at all — in fact, I think it’s conceptually better than what I expected to see. But when the time comes, the film is unprepared to make the transition from energetic, off-kilter comedy to issue-laced dramedy, especially since the comedy stuff was working so well. The story gets bogged down in underdeveloped plotlines — we observe, for example, that Chris’ teenage son becomes the laughingstock of his school, but his character is suddenly abandoned and remains a loose end for the rest of the film. The script becomes so preoccupied with the half-baked “serious stuff” that the jokes start to repeat themselves; we see the same pattern (initial disappointment followed by pleasant surprise, i.e. Chris and Annie plan a press conference and are chagrinned that no one showed up, but then — sakes alive! — it is revealed that there are far more attendees than the room could hold, and the conference spilled over into a bigger auditorium) several times, and predictability becomes a factor.

By all accounts, Calendar Girls should have just coasted on the lead performance of Helen Mirren, who shows an understated comic flair that gives even the script’s tritest jokes new life. (As an aside, this has been a banner year for great performances in mediocre films; I’m also thinking of Robert Duvall in Open Range, Cate Blanchett in Veronica Guerin and Wentworth Miller in the somewhat less mediocre The Human Stain.) And indeed, even as the rest of the movie begins to go south, you can still count on the actress being impeccably convincing in every situation, as well as hitting us with those perfectly sardonic line deliveries. The dialogue that leads this review doesn’t sound gut-busting, but trust me: out of Mirren’s mouth, “no Celia, the chocolate one” might be the funniest line of the year.

The second half of the film buries every asset under clunky melodrama. One can still spot glimmers of Helen Mirren’s brilliance and the awesome commercial creativity of the original concept, but nothing more than glimmers. It’s a waste.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Score: C+

10 Years

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Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

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Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

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Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

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Score: B

Street of Chance

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Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

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