One of my favorite movies as a teenager still holds up today. By far the best installment of Lindsay Anderson's "Mick Travis" trilogy IMNSHO. (Not to slight If, a fine movie all in all, but as an American, English boarding schools are an alien concept to me, and the fabled shock ending seems tacked on...not that O Lucky Man's ending isn't even more "tacked on" in a different way, but, well, let's just say I experienced worse oppression under my own roof as a child and I never killed anybody over it.)
There is so much to love about this movie, starting with Alan Price at his peak playing the Greek Chorus role with a series of songs that fall somewhere between Randy Newman cynicism and Ray Davies warmth and hit the perfect note of English working class stoicism for an epic story of innocence, ambition, corruption, and paradox. Malcolm McDowell plays his greatest role (in a story he conceived and co-wrote) as Michael, the earnest young salesman who falls into an increasingly absurd series of situations, sustained and tripped up by his own drive for success. Even in the last third of the movie, when he renounces material things, takes up philosophy, and strives to be a secular saint of sorts, Michael is driven to be the most saintly, most generous, and most honest man he can be, which leads him to even more trouble. The ego is a harsh mistress.
This is a long, huge epic feast of a movie with so much in it that it would be easy to ruminate on it for hours and still leave out most of the best parts. The scene with the cold Machiavellian businessman Sir James (who Michael meets after having a fling with his flighty hippie daughter, played by a very young and very cute Helen Mirren), hosting a meeting with a prominent African dictator to discuss lucrative business deals and genocide, is chilling and realistic. We are surrounded these days by childish minds who jabber in the press and in front of microphones about "evil", while in the real world, true evil is most likely to be found in boardrooms where powerful people conduct their affairs politely with the best of manners. On the commentary track, McDowell muses that everything they were talking about way back then is still going on today.
Yes, this is another classic British satirical comedy like other personal favorites Bedazzled and The Ruling Class, but the humor is far less of the belly laugh variety and more the "darkly chuckling at the uncomfortable irony of it all" type. There are moments of horror so deep that you almost have to laugh at their sheer awfulness, and almost every character in one way or another is up to no good, but you don't go away hating these people. Instead you marvel at the fallible complexity of humanity. Even Michael, the protagonist, is both self-centered and idealistic, out for himself yet striving to be of service to whomever he's involved with at the moment. One could conclude he is living his whole life at the effect, and one would be right. Still, he's an affable young rogue you don't mind spending almost four hours with.
One of the most ingenious gimmicks in the movie is the use of multiple roles. Most of the actors played at least three parts, and the same faces come back again and again in vastly different and often incongrous roles, creating an unnerving deja vu effect. It works well, and it brought out the film geek in me to figure out where I'd seen each of them previously. The most ridiculous of the lot was the guy who played the owner of the coffee factory and the small town bigwig turning up later on (in what seemed to be a deliberately bad blackface makeup job) as the aforementioned African dictator. This use of the actors came off as a Brechtian wink to the audience, or a nod to the budgetary restrictions of small theatre companies. Whatever the rationale, it added to the fun.
The whole movie could be seen as the evolution of a smile, from Michael's initial superficially winning "sincere" salesman smile to the wry, sadder but wiser half-grin at the very end that tears your heart out with gripping intimacy. After that, there's nowhere else to go but to drop you in the middle of the post-shooting cast party, where all the warmth and sweetness that the characters never get to experience comes bursting out of the screen in a gorgeous, cathartic explosion. Yup, 35 years on I'm still loving this movie. I should take a moment to drop a line of thanks to Nick Pierotti for turning me on to it way back then. Now I have to go find that Alan Price soundtrack on CD.