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Introducing the Dwights (a.k.a. Clubland)

(2007) ** 1/2 R
106 min. Warner Independent Pictures. Director: Cherie Nowlan (II). Cast: Brenda Blethyn, Emma Booth, Russell Dykstra, Khan Chittenden, Katie Wall.

Like Superman gets his strength from our yellow sun, Jeannie Dwight gets her strength from the glare of a spotlight. But as a comedy star transplanted from the U.K. to Australia, her light has been flickering and fading for years. As played by Brenda Blethyn in Introducing the Dwights (renamed, for American release, from Clubland), Jeannie is an attention black hole. She's always the center of every room, which is fine when she's on stage, but she's also an emotionally possessive control freak with family and friends. "The parade's passed her by," says her ex-husband, but woe betide anyone who says it to her face.

As a divorcee living with her two sons, Jeannie lives in fear that another man will walk out on her. As a result, her son Tim (Khan Chittenden) has a formidable obstacle in his sexual coming-of-age, explored with a pretty acquaintance named Jill (Emma Booth). Tim drives his mum to gigs and accompanies her backstage, where he submits to her ridicule about his sexual inexperience. When Tim meets Jill in the course of his small-scale moving business, he finds in her a compelling enough reason to fight his instinct and go against Jeannie's wishes.

Tim's brother Mark (Richard Wilson) is mentally challenged (from birth) and kept as a virtual shut in by Jeannie. He, too, fearfully suppresses a desire to rebel, though as Tim drifts to Jill, Mark begins to beg Tim to take more of Jeannie's brunt. he does, in the form of Jeannie's intent, passive-aggressive attempts to sabotage Tim's relationship with Jill. The whole film's encapsulated in a scene of Tim and Jeannie on the couch after one of the young man's dates. Jeannie: "Did you have a good time?" Tim: "No." Jeannie: "Good." She laughs. "Good." Dad (Frankie J. Holden) is more supportive, but since he's a security guard who moonlights singing Conway Twitty songs, he's also a potential embarrassment (Tim's dark secret, pulled out by Jill, is that his parents are—horrors!—"entertainers").

Introducing the Dwights is a collision of Jeannie's story and Tim's story, and while that's appropriate, it also results in wobbly tone shifts (Gypsy meets Equus, without the horses?). Brassy Jeannie is monstrous in her behavior, and many of the supporting characters are overplayed in the Full Monty lower-middle-class suburban-comedy style. As such, at least half of Introducing the Dwights is loud and a bit synthetic (Wilson's performance isn't very realistic, and Holden's is overtly comic). But the story of Tim and Jill's courtship holds fast in its tender subtlety, with Chittenden and Booth's finely etched acting putting the adults to shame.

Screenwriter Keith Thompson and director Cherie Nowlan excel in this latter storyline, capturing the first blush of success with a girl—awkward, sincere, and excited—and not shying from sexual frankness. But Jeannie's story is shrill and repetitive, more infuriating than interesting as she repeatedly, selfishly treats her kids like shit, claws to remain relevant on the comedy circuit, and generally tries to hold back the years and the spectre of death. Feeling Tim slip away, she painfully botches a comedy-club audition (in a scene rigged with especially bad jokes). "The first rule of comedy: make 'em like you," her ex-husband reminds her. "You scared the shit out of 'em"

Audiences are likely to feel just as intimidated, until an emotional climax constructed as Jeannie's redemption. After so much punishment, the scene offers release, but unconvincingly so. Is her profound emotional bravery to be believed? Such questions hang over the film like dark clouds: are we meant to sympathize with Jeannie? Can we muster the goodwill? Is she capable of change? Introducing the Dwights attempts more than most domestic indies, so it may be worth chasing down the answers.

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