Wah-Wah

| May 15, 2006

What is it with movie titles these days? Following in the auspicious footsteps of titular gems like “Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood” (I know, blame the novelist) and “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School,” “Wah-Wah” is the latest example of over-creativity in movie naming. The film is an autobiographical account of writer-director Richard E. Grant’s coming of age in Swaziland, Southeast Africa, during the last gasps of British colonial rule in the ’60s. As his father (Gabriel Byrne) descends further and further into abusive alcoholism and his mother and step-mother (Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson, respectively) seem to trade off like a revolving door, adolescent Ralph (Nicholas Hoult) struggles to keep his family from completely disintegrating. Ralph is an artistic dreamer-type, and seeks solace from the mayhem of his family in designing puppets and starring in the local amateur production of “Camelot.” (Obviously this early performing experience was a formative one for sometime actor Grant.) Usually bad titles go with bad movies (see aforementioned “Marilyn Hotchkiss…”), but at least in this case we get something a little more dignified; “Wah-Wah” certainly has its flaws, but it also has enough virtues to just about make up for them.
To start with, Grant managed to assemble if not an all-star cast (by Hollywood standards), at least a highly pedigreed one: Byrne, Watson, Richardson, Julie Walters, and an alarmingly grown up Hoult (the title character in “About A Boy”) are but a few of the accomplished UK actors in the film. I’m pretty sure there are enough Oscar nominations between the cast of this film to make Meryl Streep blush–and it shows. All of the performances are stellar (Byrne and Watson shine even in foreign accents–Irish Byrne does British and British Watson does American). Young Hoult shows promise as well, holding his own with this assembled cast of British heavyweights. The cinematography by Pierre Aim is also enchanting–Swaziland, as it turns out, is remarkably photogenic–and Patrick Doyle’s score is elegant, if a bit epic for such an intimate family portrait. And Grant does have an ear for dialogue, making the transition from books to screenplay nicely.
The problem is, halfway through the film, when Ralph’s father is drunk and abusive yet again and Ralph is pouring his booze down the drain yet again, we wonder what exactly the point is. It’s a very sad story, sure, but life’s full of those. As the movie wares on rather repetitively, we begin to become more and more exasperated with these characters and their problems. Grant apparently hoped that the themes of troubled, broken families would resonate universally, but the relentless, bleak nastiness wares on the audience’s receptiveness to the bittersweet feeling we’re intended to have at the end of the film. There’s little to distract from Byrne’s character’s destructiveness, save for a bizarre chunk of the film depicting the “Camelot” production that smacks too keenly of “Waiting for Guffman” and feels totally out of place with the rest of the film. Perhaps if Grant had tried to politicize his film a bit, it would have served as a nice counterpoint to the family drama–but we’ll never know; it’s a quizzical marvel that Grant was able to avoid politics so completely, considering the film’s setting.
Despite these faults, however, the film’s fine cast and beautiful cinematography do much to redeem it, and fans of the myriad British thesps featured in the film will be well satiated. Just try to forget about the unfortunate title.

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