Coming of Age Comedy Floats
Somewhere in the space between "Gregory's Girl" and "Rushmore" lies "Submarine" (opening June 24 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas), a charming coming of age romantic comedy.
Not being a fan of romantic comedies, "Submarine" wasn't really on my radar... until I found out that Richard Ayoade was directing. Back in 2004, Ayoade co-created and directed an odd little gem for British TV called "Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace." Some FaceBook friends in Wales sent me the DVD of the show as a birthday present and I was enthralled with its quirky, parched dry parody of 80s TV hospital dramas. Knowing he was involved in the adaptation of Joe Dunthorne's book suddenly got me excited about the film.
The film opens with a written intro by the main character Oliver Tate. He explains that the film is set in Wales, and he thanks us Americans for never invading his country. Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a precocious 15-year-old obsessed with two things: saving his parents' marriage and losing his virginity (or at least getting a girlfriend). He's worried that his mum Jill (Sally Hawkins) is having an affair with an oily New Age life coach that moved next door, Graham T. Purvis (Paddy Considine once again proving his comic skills). So he monitors his parents' sex life by charting the dimmer switch in their bedroom. He also forges love letters to his mom from his dad Lloyd (Noah Taylor). In addition, he's become enamored with his classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), whom he makes elaborates plans to bed.
"Submarine" has the goofy charm of "Gregory's Girl" with the offbeat style of "Rushmore." It's probably the best romantic comedy since "(500) Days of Summer." Oliver is a fun character in part because he is so unreliable as our narrator. The story is told through his eyes but he doesn't always report the facts and the discrepancy between fact and fiction is part of the fun. Like Jason Schwatrzman's Max in "Rushmore," Oliver is prone to misinterpreting things and creating elaborate plans based on his misinterpretations. At times his plans feel like Rube Goldberg devices that are destined to fall apart at some point.
Another entertaining aspect of the film is Oliver's obsession with film and his tendency to portray his life as if it were some French New Wave film. As Ayoade proved with "Darkplace," he's adept at parody. So in "Submarine," he plays knowingly and humorously off of film styles and genres as he presents Oliver's point of view. In the press notes. Ayoade even cites Eric Rohmer as a big influence because that's reflective of Oliver's character. He also not afraid to let Oliver be a bit of a jerk at times, although in the end we have great affection for the character despite his numerous flaws.
Here's a note "written" by Oliver for the press notes: "I have been waiting too long for the film of my life. My name is Oliver Tate. This film will capture my idiosyncrasies, for example, the way I seduce my classmate Jordana Bevan using only my mind. Also, since my parents’ marriage is being threatened by a man who runs courses on Mental and Physical Well-being, the film will probably feature some elaborate set-pieces of me taking him down. There will be helicopter shots. There will be slow-mo, but also transcendent moments, like when I cure my father’s depression."
He concludes with "appropriate adjectives" to describe his film such as “breath-taking," “irresistible,” and “a monumental achievement." That pretty much sums up the tone of the film's narration. Oliver has quite an inflated view of himself and the film captures that to perfection. And while I might not call it breathtaking or monumental, I would call it clever, fun, and wonderfully entertaining.
Ayoade also benefits from a stellar cast. In addition to the fresh charms of Roberts and Paige, are the veteran talents of Hawkins, Taylor, and Considine. It's interesting to see Taylor and Considine handle the comedy with such skill because of their recent serious work. Taylor just completed a dark, violent role in the horror film "Red, White, and Blue," while Considine starred in the middle film of the gritty and bleak "Red Riding Trilogy." But in "Submarine," Taylor is funny as the soft-spoken dad and Considine is over-the-top hilarious as a smarmy New Age guru.
I have not read Dunthorne's book but Ayoade has crafted a highly entertaining script. He captures the teen perspective well, letting us see the world as Oliver does but without losing our grasp on the real world. There's also an underlying sweetness to the film in that Oliver tries so hard to keep his parents' marriage together, even though he seems unable to recognize some of the problems in his own relationship with Jordana. Ayoade gives us a smart script loaded with pop culture references.
"Submarine" (rated R for some language and sexual content) is a refreshing summer pic. No superheroes, no transforming robots, no wizards. Just an immensely likable tale of quirky and flawed characters.
Companion viewing: "Gregory's Girl," "Rushmore," "Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace," "Flight of the Conchords," Eric Rohmer's Love in the Afternoon," "The 400 Blows"