The geeks inherit the Earth — with predictably disastrous results — in this surreal fantasy rom-com from Monty Python veteran Terry Jones. Loosely inspired by The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a cautionary short story by sci-fi pioneer H.G. Wells, Absolutely Anything stars a pan-generational galaxy of British talent including Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale and Eddie Izzard, plus the voice of Robin Williams as a talking dog in his final film performance. The five surviving Python team members also have vocal roles – their first screen reunion in over three decades.
Sadly, despite all this heavyweight comic firepower, Jones somehow fails to raise more than a handful of lukewarm laughs in his first feature in almost 20 years. Arriving in U.K. cinemas this week, with a U.S. opening scheduled for Sept. 4, Absolutely Anything is a flabby misfire full of labored slapstick, broad caricatures and groaningly absurd plot twists. Only the most hard-core Pegg and Python fans will indulge its many flaws.
Pegg adds another lovable loser to his cinematic track record as Neil Clarke, a North London schoolteacher who dreams of being a famous novelist. Neil is a nerdy nobody with lowly romantic and financial prospects, but his fortunes change when he is randomly gifted with unlimited powers by a deep-space council of extraterrestrials who have decided to test whether mankind deserves to be destroyed, like the vengeful gods of ancient Greece. These CGI aliens are voiced by Jones and his four fellow Python veterans: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.
As in the Wells story, Neil’s magical requests must be worded with pedantic precision to avoid potential catastrophe. One of the first accidental miracles he performs leads to the casual slaughter of 38 annoying schoolchildren. Fortunately, he also has the ability to reverse clumsy errors and erase their consequences. Neil then makes his shy best friend (Sanjeev Bhaskar) irresistible to the woman of his dreams, transforms his bullying boss (Izzard) into a warmly supportive co-worker and gives his excitable pet dog (Williams) the ability to converse with humans.
Beckinsale co-stars as Neil’s glamorous neighbor, Catherine, who works for a TV book-review show hosted by a poisonously Philistine diva, played by Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley. Catherine finds the besotted Neil sweet but not boyfriend material, though their relationship heats up once he learns to use his powers properly.
Crucially, Catherine falls for Neil without him abusing his God-like gifts to persuade her into bed. However, she also is being stalked by her psychotic ex, Grant (Rob Riggle), a U.S. Army colonel and self-styled “mastermind behind extreme rendition.” The farcical love-triangle plot takes a deranged turn when Grant kidnaps Neil, hijacking his superpowers for sinister ends.
Absolutely Anything takes place in a sunny, leafy, well-heeled fantasy version of London rarely seen onscreen outside Richard Curtis and Woody Allen movies. The setting is clearly contemporary, though most of these creaky stereotypes and clunky social attitudes belong in a 1970s TV sitcom. The lazy script barely addresses the extremes of global good or evil that Neil could have explored with his miraculous abilities, preferring to dwell on petty boy-meets-girl matters. Annoyingly, during crisis moments when he easily could use his powers to correct misunderstandings or vanquish enemies, he appears to forget he even has them — a clumsy contrivance for maximum dramatic convenience.
Pegg works his usual boyish charm hard, even if he is getting a little old for these clownish man-child parts, while Beckinsale is smoothly likable in a rare comic role. Williams gives good dog as Dennis, but he is hardly on vintage autumnal form. Even the improvised outtakes that Jones includes over the closing credits, briefly putting Williams on camera, feel like scrappy tributes to a fallen comrade.
Absolutely Anything is a good idea but is executed poorly, with a lame take-home message about great power demanding great responsibility. Like last year’s London stage reunion of the surviving Pythons, this film might have been excused as one last self-indulgent curtain call by some much-loved comedy legends — if only the jokes were not so relentlessly weak. The final line is a brazen steal from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, which is a dangerous comparison for any director to invite. Wilder made a gold-plated classic comedy. Jones, alas, has delivered a dead parrot.
Production company: Bill and Ben Productions
Cast: Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rob Riggle, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Robin Williams, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Meera Syal
Director: Terry Jones
Screenwriters: Gavin Scott, Terry Jones
Producers: Bill Jones, Ben Timlett
Cinematographer: Peter Hannan
Editor: Julian Rodd
Music: George Fenton
Rated 12A (U.K.), 85 minutes