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Retro Review: CLOCKWISE (1986)

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CLOCKWISE
(UK - 1986)

Directed by Christopher Morahan. Written by Michael Frayn. Cast: John Cleese, Penelope Wilton, Alison Steadman, Stephen Moore, Sharon Maiden, Michael Aldridge, Joan Hickson, Benjamin Whitrow, Geoffrey Palmer, Pat Keen, Geoffrey Hutchings, Constance Chapman, Ann Way, John Bardon, Angus Mackay, Chip Sweeney, Sheila Keith, Tony Haygarth, Nicholas le Prevost, Nick Stringer, Peter Cellier, Peter Jonfield. (PG, 96 mins)

Given a spotty release on the US arthouse circuit by Universal in the fall of 1986 and into 1987, the British import CLOCKWISE was written by playwright Michael Frayn with Monty Python vet John Cleese in mind to star. Best known for his play Noises Off!, made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich in 1992 and required by law to be performed by every high school theater department in America, Frayn stages CLOCKWISE as a door-slamming farce reworked as a slapstick road movie of the pre-smartphone era, with Cleese channeling his loud, harumphing FAWLTY TOWERS persona as Brian Stimpson, the uptight, micro-managing headmaster of the Thomas Timpion Comprehensive School. Obsessed with punctuality, down-to-the-second time-management, and keeping his students in line by calling them out on the playground from his office perch with a PA system when he spots misbehavior, Stimpson has turned the school around and as such, is being rewarded with a new post as the chairman of an elite headmaster's association, the first such chairman to come from a common, public institution. He's set to depart on a 10:25 am train trip to Norwich, allowing him plenty of time for his 3:00 pm speech. But after his nurse wife Gwenda (Alison Steadman) drops him off, he realizes he's on the wrong train--due to his boorish habit of declaring "Right!" and being a general pain in the ass with the ticket taker and getting confused when he's told the Norwich train is on the left. He gets off the wrong train but isn't able to get onboard the Norwich in time, watching in horror as it departs without him, then realizing he left his speech on the other train at the exact moment it takes off in the opposite direction. Running out to the parking lot to see Gwenda driving away, Stimpson is stranded with no way to get to Norwich and no speech to give even if he could.






While trying and failing to hail a cab, he literally runs into a car driven by Laura (Sharon Maiden), a truant student who lives in his neighborhood. He talks her into driving him to Norwich--approximately three hours by car--but they run into one ridiculous mishap after another, starting with Laura borrowing her mom's car without permission after breaking off an illicit relationship with Mr. Jolly (Stephen Moore), Timpion's music teacher and recurring Stimpson foil due to his lack of concern for punctuality. While filling up at a petrol station and forgetting to pay, Stimpson is spotted by Gwenda, who's out on a day trip with three senile nursing home patients and now thinks he lied about going to Norwich and is having an affair with Laura. He's critical of Laura's driving and takes the wheel, only to immediately plow into the back of a cop car. Malfunctioning pay phones with too-small coin slots prevent him from notifying the headmaster's association that he's running late, and a stop-off in a small village leads to an unwanted reunion with his clingy college girlfriend Pat (Penelope Wilton, best known these days as Shaun's mom in SHAUN OF THE DEAD and as Isobel Crowley on DOWNTON ABBEY), who never really got over him.


That Stimpson was written for Cleese is obvious, but he's always had more success in comedic parts he's crafted for himself. There's a definite Peter Sellers/Terry-Thomas vibe to some of the absurd situations in which Stimpson finds himself, and to that end, some of the set pieces in CLOCKWISE are crying out for the kind of inventive, intricate comedic choreography of a director like, say, Blake Edwards instead of the workmanlike job done by Christopher Morahan, a journeyman British TV vet who had a long and busy but generally undistinguished career. With one misunderstanding after another, there's also a definite Larry David quality to some of Stimpson's predicaments, but CLOCKWISE never quite settles on what kind of comedy it wants to be, whether it's slapstick or the right/left confusion feeling like an Abbott & Costello bit, cops showing up in Norwich looking for Stimpson and one headmaster concluding that he's a pedophile who likes little boys, or the generally laissez-faire attitude it takes with Jolly sleeping with a student, something that definitely wouldn't fly in a comedy today but still managed to keep CLOCKWISE at a PG back in 1986. The film was a bigger hit in the UK than in the US--though its found a small cult following stateside--and while Cleese was happy with how it turned out, he was disappointed that some of the more British humor didn't go over as well as he'd hoped with American audiences, and he specifically cited that concern when he was doing press for 1988's A FISH CALLED WANDA, which he wrote himself and enjoyed significantly more acclaim and commercial success. Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), CLOCKWISE is a slight but enjoyable showcase for the tight-assed pomposity in which Cleese has always excelled, and it's a rare example of him being given a lead in a project he didn't originate, but it still feels like more could've been done with the material if Cleese was more involved behind-the-scenes.


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