What. The. F*ck. Happened?
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
You know the last shot of Crank 2: High Voltage where a flaming Chev Chelios (and I mean that in the literal sense that he’s on fire), a man currently is as high as multiple kites and who has gone through an amount of pain that would reduce most men to damp squibs on the ground, turns to the camera and flips off the audience; a shot that perfectly encapsulates the opinion that Crank 2 has of any member of its audience that wanted a film that made the slightest bit of coherent sense? That’s as good a metaphor as I can think of for the film debut of Outnumbered creators Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, What We Did On Our Holiday; a good 45 minutes of that middle finger pointed squarely at the audience.
More attentive readers may notice that What We Did On Our Holiday is actually 96 minutes long, and that is precisely my point. For the first 45 minutes, What We Did On Our Holiday threatens to go to big places, to use its BBC sitcom-style lightweight comedy to address serious topics like death, dissolution of marriage, the pettiness that can come from divorce and other such things that a film that takes many Outnumbered-style detours into “kids say the darndest things” (although, for the most part, they’re actually pretty funny so I’ll let it slide) wouldn’t normally do. I mean, the comedy is a bit too broad and the drama keeps getting undercut, but the potential for a breakthrough is there. Then, at about the 45 minute mark, A Thing Happens… and the film promptly flies off the rails and drives straight into Crazy Town from which it never makes a recovery. The problem for me is that that bit constitutes a giant spoiler… but pretty much all of my thoughts centre around that thing and the back half that follows it. You see my dilemma.
So, rather than dance awkwardly around the issue for a whole bunch of pages, I am going to split this review into two parts. The first will attempt to awkwardly dance around the issue, and pretty much anything positive I say should be immediately suffixed with “but it’s pretty much for nought when the film goes to sh*t in the second half”, but will avoid the giant spoiler elephant in the room. The second part will tell you the exact scene where the film hit The Point Of No Return and then explain, as a result of that, why the rest of the film completely falls apart as a result. Don’t worry, there’ll be a giant indicator to let you know when to get the hell out of dodge if you really don’t want to know. OK? Right then…
It starts a lot like Outnumbered. That same claustrophobic shooting style, that same family dynamic only switching out Jake for a girl who has just hit double-digits, that same seemingly semi-improvised nature of most of the dialogue, that same small London house… So far, so “Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin are really sticking to their comfort zone”. But then little hints punch through that separate the McLeods from the Brockmans. The kids get along swimmingly, but they keep having to remind Mum (Rosamund Pike) and Dad (David Tennant) that they’re around whenever a conversation starts. The landlord of their house seems genuinely surprised that Dad is at her door asking for the spare keys. Mum and Dad snipe angrily at each other at every opportunity.
Then, during a roadside argument, the shoe is dropped. Mum and Dad are separated and in the middle of divorcing one another (Dad had an affair), and their lawyers have basically frazzled all possible pleasantries between the two, especially since Mum has plans to relocate to Newcastle and take the kids with her. Their holiday to Scotland and their happy family ruse is all for Granddad’s (Billy Connolly) 75th birthday and everyone is sticking to this ruse as Granddad has cancer and is clearly in the final stages of his life, so nobody wants to shatter this happy portrait for him. That, of course, will be easier said than done as the kids can’t keep a secret to save their lives, Mum hasn’t actually told anyone yet about her Newcastle plans, and they’re all stuck at Dad’s really obnoxious brother’s (Alexander Armstrong) country house for the duration of the trip.
In other words, it’s a recipe for broad comedy giving way to alternately heart-warming and heart-wrenching dramatics. But you know what? I was on board with it. It probably helps (as much as such a situation like this could “help”, but what the hell) that my own Granddad passed away from cancer just under a year ago and the wound is still fresh for me, so I was basically being set up for tears, but the film was succeeding on its own merits, if not totally. Although the jokes are funny, I did spend a good amount of the runtime at least chuckling to a degree, the humour is a bit too broad to fully coalesce with the low-key drama. Instead of easily switching between tones, What We Did more lurches between the comedy bit and the drama bit to a near-whiplash inducing degree; when the comedy is subtler (like when Mum lightens the mood to Granddad by reminding him “at least you’ve dodged Alzheimer’s”), it works better.
The cast, meanwhile, end up establishing quite the rapport with one another. Not only do the jokes themselves pop a lot more than they could have due to everyone managing to operate on each other’s wavelength, the more dramatic sequences carry genuine impact as well as everyone is able to believably sell the illusion that they are a real family. Billy Connolly is especially great, clearly comfortable with everyone he interacts with (which is basically everyone) and he’s even able to sell his character’s acceptance-of-his-fate arc (with sample lines like “Life is like when somebody tickles your toes. Whenever it’s going on, you’re always screaming ‘Stop! Stop!’ But when it does, you shout ‘More! More!’”) as stuff that human beings might actually say. Connolly’s a rare presence in film, but it’s performances like this that remind me why I perk up whenever he turns up.
So, everything seems to be going great… then Something Happens and What We Did On Our Holiday promptly takes the very next available train to Insanity Station, never really coming out from there until the credits start rolling. Its tonal issues become exacerbated, its emotional nuance goes out of the window, it deploys a large amount of absurdity but doesn’t stick with it, it threatens to use that absurdity to make an overall point but then tries to eat the cake it also wants to have, the dialogue drops down several notches, it tries to slip back into the Outnumbered skin that it shed early on but that just kills the pacing, I have absolutely no idea where the saccharinely sweet happy ending came from…
To put it bluntly: the second half of What We Did On Our Holiday is a total and absolute mess that wastes nearly all of the hard work the first 45 minutes had put in and left me in completely bewildered bafflement for the remainder of the film, growing more and more baffled as it went further and further off-the-rails the longer it ran for. I thought I had the film figured out, even if that would have shown the first half to have had way too much effort put into it for said point, but then the ending came along and I instead settled on the idea that Hamilton and Jenkin actually had pretty much no clue, as well. Hence the question that makes up the deck of this review. Seriously: what the f*ck happened, guys? Did you misplace some script pages? Smush a whole bunch of half-finished ideas into one film cos you desperately wanted to make a film? Were you both victims of a dare or just decided to see how far audiences are willing to stick with a comedy as long as jokes occasionally rear their head? What?
Unlike many other films where the audience laugh along at every cue whilst I sit there in bafflement (feel free to change one or two words in that sentence so that it can apply to all genres of film, if you wish), I get why the people in my screening of What We Did On Our Holiday loved it. I get the feeling that you might too. See, although the film goes completely cuckoo-bananas and boils the beating heart that used to sit in its centre in sulphuric acid, the jokes and attempts at jokes don’t let up. If you can get past the fact that the second half of the film housing said jokes is a total mess, you’ll probably really like What We Did On Our Holiday and think of me as some big meanie pants who just can’t have fun at the cinema. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t get over how badly the film squandered its potential depth, heart and emotional resonance at the altar of the absurd, and I couldn’t get over how the second half feels like it was thrown together awkwardly over a period of months with long stretches between work being done on it.
What We Did On Our Holiday had something and it blew it hard. It is the most hopelessly confused I’ve been at the cinema all year, though, so maybe it can take pride in that dubious distinction.
OK, that’s the spoiler-free bit done. Now I need to detail the moment that the film goes doolally so that I can better explain why the second half of this film crashed and burned spectacularly; none of this dancing around the elephant nonsense. So, this is your last chance. Below this image, I will spoil a pivotal sequence in What We Did On Our Holiday. If you don’t want to know or still intend to see the film, TURN BACK NOW.
So, at about the 45 minute mark, Granddad passes away. He’s on a beach trip with the children, many miles away from the country house and he’s purposefully let his phone run out of battery charge so that Dad’s obnoxious brother can’t hassle him back for his birthday party. The death itself is represented in a really overblown way (he sees a vision of his deceased older brother calling to him just as he drifts away), but it still got a reaction out of me so good job on that, filmmakers. Anyways, the kids react rather underwhelmed to the fact that their Granddad just passed away in their vicinity, but the eldest elects to run back to the house they’re staying at to get somebody to help them. The parents, however, are arguing and the other adults are tied up organising the birthday party with hair-trigger tempers, so the kids decide to deal with it themselves. And they deal with it by honouring Granddad’s last wish: to give him a Viking funeral. So they do.
This is played completely straight.
Now, admittedly, this whole sequence had been foreshadowed. Granddad was obviously going to die before the credits rolled, the Viking stuff had been frequently brought up due to the son having an obsession with them, and all three of the kids are shown to have “issues” of various kinds that would lead them to think that this was a good idea. That being said, that still doesn’t mean that an extended and mostly humourless sequence of the kids (whose ages I estimate to be 10, 8 and 6 respectively) constructing a raft, loading Granddad’s body onto the thing, lighting the raft on fire and then letting it drift out to sea is going to come off as any less left-field and ridiculous. Especially since the film prior to that was rather realistic and relatively low-key (when I mentioned “broad humour” earlier, I meant in terms of fart jokes and “kids saying the darndest things” stuff; broad but still in keeping with the realistic aesthetic of the film).
And yet, the film wasn’t totally a lost cause for myself by that point, because then the kids come back home and break the news to the adults, at which point everyone reacts as you’d expect sane human beings to do. At this point (alright, about 15 to 20 minutes after this point), I thought that the film was going to use that as fuel to parody and deconstruct, in the most deadpan and straight-laced way possible, the kind of coming-of-age film where kids end up getting involved in that kind of ridiculous life-changing experience. You know, show how that kind of thing would look to people who weren’t involved in it. But the film keeps trying to wring emotional pathos out of the absurd in the most melodramatic and non-jokey of ways, and it doesn’t have the balls to follow through on its threats. The ending proceeds to diffuse any possible risks or consequences in the most blatantly cliché and sappy ways possible with no jokes or subversive intent, hence my prior usage of the “having your cake and eating it too” saying. It’s just a total mess that muddies whatever point and intent there may possibly have been thanks to nonsense and weak nerves.
Also, there’s a frequent occurrence where an ostrich runs across the camera. It belongs to a nearby ostrich farmer but escaped from its pen. One would think that this would lead up to some kind of joke, a payoff of some sort. It doesn’t; after we find out where it comes from, it’s never seen again until the last shot of the film where… it runs across the camera. This sounds like a nit-pick, but it’s rather representative of my issues with the second half of the film, where What We Did On Our Holiday throws away whatever it was building towards for a second half that messily jumps from setpiece to setpiece before just fizzling out without any payoff.