Anointed in 2013 as the ‘next big British thing’ by no less an eminence than Harvey Weinstein, stand-up and small-screen star Jack Whitehall makes an energetic but disappointing feature-film debut with The Bad Education Movie. Opening up the cultishly popular BBC sit-com about a posh history-teacher and his wayward high-school charges, the results are aimed exclusively at U.K. youth already familiar with the show; barring a spirited supporting turn from Game of Thrones notable Iain Glen, there’s nothing to attract or reward viewers outside the tight target demographic. Social-media reactions to the opening couple of days nevertheless portend strong returns on home turf, with steady ancillary benefits to follow down the line.
The all-too-obvious commercial template here is The Inbetweeners Movie, an adaptation of the Channel 4 comedy about socially-inept young lads which outstripped all expectations in the identical August frame four years ago. A mammoth U.K./Ireland haul of $72 million placed it third in the territory’s annual chart behind Harry Potter’s swansong Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The King’s Speech, and triggered an inferior sequel that took $56 million last year. The inbetweener boys made it well out of Blighty on their cinematic forays — first to Crete and then to Australia; it’s a sign of generally scaled-down ambitions here that the brats from Bad Education (which has less-than-zero connection with Pedro Almodovar‘s 2004 coming-of-ager), though initially promised Las Vegas, only get as far as the remote, rugged county of Cornwall.
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They’re taken here on a school-trip treat following the completion of their GCSE exams — equivalent of the high-school diploma — by their manic, desperate-to-be-cool teacher Alfie Wickers (Whitehall). A well-bred Oxbridge type who struggles painfully but persistently to engage with his more down-at-heel charges (they derisively dub him “Downtown Abbey”) man-child Alfie is the exasperation of his employers and the PTA alike.
“We are all sick of that buffoon” thunders battle-axe Susan Poulter (Joanna Scanlan), busybody mother of overweight teacher’s-pet Joe (Ethan Lawrence). Susan connives to accompany the seven pupils on the trip, with a view to compiling video-evidence that will secure Alfie’s dismissal. He’s nevertheless determined to show ‘Class K’ some semblance of a high old time in the fleshpots of the United Kingdom’s not-so-wild west.
Chaotic shenanigans duly ensue, usually of a mildly gross-out nature — Alfie’s scrotum is exposed to public view and mockery on three separate occasions — reaping the occasional belly-laugh. The plot escalates into the politically-flavored absurd when Alfie inadvertently ends up becoming the Che Guevara of the (fictional) Cornish Liberation Army, under the hawk-eyed leadership of firebrand Pascoe (Glen, bringing a welcome dash of Westeros gravitas to the increasingly daft proceedings.)
But with the kids — supposedly 16, but with several palpably well into their 20s — basically a bunch of stock stereotypes, and older, familiar British faces like the misleadingly second-billed Harry Enfield and a hammy Matthew Horne mainly kept to the peripheries (Scanlan manages to make the most of a bigger if thankless role), this is very much Whitehall’s show. And while there’s no disputing the extent of his commitment to proceedings, the lanky, bearded 27-year-old works strenuously hard for laughs — eyes-a-poppin‘ — with only intermittently victorious results. He may perhaps one day vindicate Weinstein’s enthusiasm — reportedly shared by several leading U.K. casting-directors — and the British media’s lazy Hugh Grant comparisons, but it’s hard to find much supporting evidence here.
For more than 50 years British cinema has transferred TV hits to the big screen — The Army Game became I Only Arsked! (1958), The Larkins found themselves Inn For Trouble (1960) — usually on low budgets and almost invariably, in recent decades at least, using telly-talent behind the camera rather than established, cinema-experienced personnel. The consequence: a string of cheap-and-not-so-cheerful cash-ins, with the inspired likes of Steve Coogan vehicle Alan Partridge (2013) very much the exception to the depressing rule.
Fifteen years after his little-seen debut County Kilburn (2000), director Elliot Hegarty — who has amassed dozens of tube credits to his name in the interim, including seven of Bad Education‘s 19 segments — predictably conducts proceedings with a bouncy, bland hand. He keeps things moving at a brisk enough pace, seldom letting up on Vince Pope‘s jaunty, tinny score — calculatedly interspersed with pop and rap hits. For undemanding Brit teens, The Bad Education Movie may well be “cray jokes”; most everyone else will likely judge it “dred“.
Production companies: Tiger Aspect, Cave Bear
Cast: Jack Whitehall, Joanna Scanlan, Iain Glen, Harry Enfield, Matthew Horne, Ethan Lawrence, Sarah Solemani, Jeremy Irvine, Charlie Wernham, Kae Alexander
Director: Elliot Hegarty
Screenwriters: Freddie Syborn, Jack Whitehall
Producers: Ben Cavey, Pippa Brown
Executive producers: Nigel Green, Trevor Green, Bella Wright, Helen Wright
Cinematographer: Pete Rowe
Production designer: Simon Rogers
Costume designer: Claire Finlay-Thompson
Editor: Peter H Oliver
Composer: Vince Pope
Casting: Sarah Crowe
Sales: Tiger Aspect, London
No Rating, 91 minutes