Picks and Pans Review: Thetall Guy

updated 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson

Studiously bonkers, this British comedy makes silliness seem not only hilarious but downright respectable.

Its comedy highlight is a musical version of The Elephant Man. Titled Elephant!, it has a score that includes such portentous, operatically declamatory, are-you-listening-Andy-Lloyd songs as "He's Packing His Trunk," "Ain't Gonna Follow the Herd," "He's Got the Kind of Face You Don't Forget" and a tearful finale featuring the lines, "Somewhere up in Heaven/ There's an angel with big ears." But there's a lot more to it.

Before he ends up in the title role of Elephant!, Goldblum is an American actor stuck in a rotten second-banana spot in a London music-hall show. That show's star, Rowan (PBS's Black Adder) Atkinson, is an evil-tempered twit who suggests Dudley Moore in perpetual tantrum.

Goldblum's ability to go all naive and innocent plays perfectly against the snarly Atkinson, and the straight inflections of Goldblum's performance help restrain the screenplay by Richard (Black Adder) Curtis. Lamenting the futility of his career as Atkinson's foil in the traditional, cross-dressing-oriented music-hall show, Goldblum says, "You know actors. We live in hope that some director is going to come to the show and say, 'Hey! That guy in the skirt! That's my Macbeth!' "

Goldblum also teams with Thompson and director Mel Smith in a funny, erotic scene that combines the sweaty, fumbling humor and sweaty, exploratory passion of first-time lovemaking between two people who care about each other. As they tumble around her bedroom, Thompson, looking like a sexed-up young Julie Andrews, breathes heavily and laughs hard, while Goldblum, in effect, harmonizes.

Goldblum and Thompson (Katherine in husband Kenneth Branagh's Henry V), playing a nurse who disdains show business, are charming. So are Geraldine James, as Goldblum's nymphomaniac landlady, and Kim Thomson, as an actress who tempts Goldblum.

Curtis and Smith generate some enjoy-ably nasty undertones ("73 percent of actors are unemployed, and yet Roger Moore works") reminiscent of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Despite its style and setting, though, this is not a standard British comedy. There are no Home Office jokes, no digs at Margaret Thatcher—just a subtly paced succession of punch lines and pratfalls. You would never guess to look at it that Smith, half of the veteran comedy team of Smith and Jones, had never directed a movie before. (R)

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