Mel Gibson and Sean Penn bring us the story of the creation of the Oxford dictionary.
William Minor (Sean Penn) is a former doctor who murders an innocent man, George Merrett (Shane Noone), while under the delusion that he’s being chased by a man seeking revenge. He is found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Broadmoor Hospital. Merrett’s wife, Eliza (Natalie Dormer), is left penniless with seven children. While in the asylum, Minor saves the life of a guard, leading another guard, Muncie (Eddie Marsan), to want to help him. Minor asks Muncie to help Eliza and to bring him books.
At the same time, James Murray (Mel Gibson), an autodidact with a prolific knowledge of lexicology, is hired by Frederick Furnivall (Steve Coogan) to craft the Oxford dictionary after the previous commission had failed for twenty years. Murray decides that the only way to approach the project is to solicit quotes and definitions of words from the entirety of the English-speaking world and to edit the submissions. Minor finds one of Murray’s requests and dedicates his free time and library to the task of creating a massive number of entries. The two begin to correspond, with Murray initially not knowing that Minor is imprisoned for insanity, and the world is forever changed by their work.
I don’t think I could in good conscience begin this review without quickly reminding everyone that supporting art does not inherently mean supporting the artist. In this case, both Mel Gibson and Sean Penn have a number of incidents that do not exactly reflect well on their personal characters. Like, the domestic violence, racism, and occasional endorsement of dictators. Yes, that applies to both of them. In any case, I’m just saying that the fact that this was a good movie and that they’re both pretty good in it does not mean that I’m saying that I’m endorsing them personally at all.
Having said that, this actually wasn’t that great of a movie. It’s either too short or too long and it’s very weird that I can’t tell. It definitely drags at a number of points, but it also seems like there are a number of scenes that needed to be added to give some extra stakes to other scenes. For example, there is the weird subplot involving two of the people trying to get rid of Murray due to him taking too long to get the dictionary done, even though he’s apparently made more progress in two years than anyone has in decades. It’s designed to add an adversary and a ticking clock to the film, but it’s completely arbitrary and somewhat ridiculous. I know there were people advocating for a smaller dictionary in the real event, but the way the scenes between the “villains” play out is completely unconvincing. This is just a small example, but it adds like 15 pointless minutes to the film and is completely unnecessary. The film also spends very little on establishing time skips, so that the decade or so of the film passes very unevenly and without really properly showing the level of effort.
As to the leads, the performances are varied. Mel Gibson’s introduction as Murray is a reminder of why he was one of the most bankable stars for a decade. He has a level of gravitas that sells his character as a self-made man and unnatural genius. Sean Penn’s portrayal of the mentally ill Minor is captivating, but also so over-the-top at times that it borders on self-parody. Most of the supporting characters are great, including Jennifer Ehle as Murray’s wife who deals with her husband’s single-minded devotion with realistic frustration. Unfortunately, even decent acting doesn’t help too much.
Apparently, this film’s director, Farhad Safinia, took his name off of the film because the studio re-made it during the final cut. He and Gibson have both disowned the movie and refused to promote it. I’m not sure, therefore, how much of the trouble in the film is from bad directing and how much is from bad editing.
Overall, though, it doesn’t matter much whose fault the flaws are, this story needs someone else to take a crack at it. It’s a great story and it’s a true one, but it’s not done properly in this outing.
We’re at my favorite. Yes, that’s right, out of the entire Cornetto Trilogy, this one is the one that I will re-watch most. Now, that’s not to say I don’t like the other two immensely, I love the hell out of them, but this is one of the most perfect action movie parodies out there while still being meaningful, intelligent, and freaking hilarious. The World’s Endimpacts me more on a personal level, Shaun of the Dead is funnier to me, but this one struck the balance that I think works best.
Based on feedback, I’m using my new format for movie reviews, so, if you want a full annotated summary of the film, go to the bottom and click the link.
PC Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is removed from the Metropolitan Police Service in London due to being so dedicated to his job that he makes all the other officers look bad. He’s also not particularly social or fun, due to constantly being “on duty,” which doesn’t help. Since firing him would draw attention, they instead promote him to Sergeant and transfer him to Sandford, Gloucestershire, a small village known for being peaceful and quaint.
When he arrives, he is partnered with PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), son of Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), the head of the local police service. Danny is a huge fan of action movies and is disappointed that most of police life, according to Angel, is paperwork and regulations. The two eventually start to bond with Danny showing Angel Point Break and Bad Boys II as examples of “proper action,” before finally becoming friends as they investigate cases together.
Meanwhile, a series of murders (shown to the audience but framed to the characters as accidents) start claiming members of the town, leading Angel to suspect there’s a serial killer. He eventually accuses local obviously evil guy Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton) of killing everyone as part of a real estate scheme, only for it to be revealed that Skinner clearly couldn’t have done it. He then theorizes that Skinner could have done it with help, since he employs much of the town, but Frank dismisses it as paranoia, because murders don’t happen in Sandford.
Nicholas returns to his hotel room, only to be ambushed by Lurch (Rory McCann), Skinner’s supermarket cart boy (trolley if you’re British). Angel fights him off and goes to confront Skinner, only to find out that most of the town, including Frank, are part of a “secret” society, the Neighborhood Watch Alliance. Even crazier, the murders weren’t part of a grand, logical scheme, but just based on thinking the people were annoying or inconvenient to have in the “Village of the Year.”
Danny helps Nicholas escape, but he comes back, armed to the teeth. Together with Danny and, later, the rest of the police force, Angel engages in a shootout that destroys much of the town and ends with everyone in the NWA in jail or dead. At the end of the film, Nicholas and Danny are still partners, now having fun being bad ass on the streets of Sandford.
Part of the reason why this movie is my favorite is… well, I’ll Venn Diagram it.
The first time I saw Shaun of the Dead, it was amazing. The first time I saw The World’s End, it was just good. The second time I saw Shaun of the Dead, it was much the same. The second time I saw The World’s End, it became one of my favorite films. Hot Fuzz started at amazing and moved into epic on repeat viewing.
Part of it is that the foreshadowing in this movie is more subtle and spread-out than in the other films, but, because it’s based on action movie clichés, you really already know what’s going to happen. There’s one sequence where Danny asks Angel about all of the “action” he’s had in London which lists all of the things that are going to happen during the final sequence, including shooting a gun into the air and going “Aaaargh” a la Point Break. There’s another sequence where Angel is identifying potential threats on the street that turns out to be accurate, even though it’s portrayed as being paranoid.
The foreshadowing is also combined with Wright’s wonderful use of recontextualized repetition (apparently the Trope is called Ironic Echoing), with most of the lines in the first act being repeated, or repeated with a slight variation, in the second or third act, including “Get a look at his arse/horse,” which is one of my favorite uses of regional dialect wordplay. Yes, there are others. Probably. The point is, I find the way they compare harmless and dire situations in dialogue to be hilarious. They discuss catching a serial killer and a swan in almost the exact same tone, compare Angel’s initial hazing with his moment of broken spirit, and compare a firefight with solving a crossword. The last one brings me to all of the brick jokes.
A brick joke is when you make a mediocre joke which later turns out to be the set-up for a bigger joke. If you want examples, Arrested Development is filled with them and I even pointed out that Bob Newhart once set-up the joke in one episode and paid it off in another series. This movie, similarly, sets up some goofy lines that later pay off into absolutely ridiculous scenes, ranging from the revelation that there IS an Aaron A. Aaronson living in the village (Angel thought that was a fake name to mock him) and that an armed farmer and his equally armed mother are the first people that Angel takes out when he comes back (having been told that everyone and his mother owns a gun in the countryside). Actually, most of the jokes that are made at Angel’s expense seem to later come true.
Similar to Shaun of the Dead, the movie does a lot of sharp, dramatic cuts accompanied by music to show Angel going through all of the boring parts of police work as opposed to the kind of action sequences that usually are associated with them. While Shaun of the Dead used it to draw comparisons between Shaun’s life and zombies, Hot Fuzz uses it to subvert the usual cop movie trait of ignoring the procedural parts of policework, which reminds us of Angel’s absolute rigidity about his policework. And that brings us to the big theme of the movie.
All three of the Cornetto Trilogy films are about the dangers of perpetual adolescence. In Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, it’s fairly obvious what the main characters are. Shaun’s given up on really living life and Gary has never done anything with his life. Nicholas Angel, however, is not an unsuccessful police officer, but an absolutely amazing one. He is dedicated to the law to an almost absurd degree and that’s the problem: he’s got nothing in his life except for his job.
It’s a very different kind of immaturity from Shaun or Gary, because Angel is actually doing exactly what he wants to do: Be an amazing police officer. It’s just that, in pursuit of it, he has never learned how to do anything else or have a real connection with any other human. He is just his job, not a real person. In existentialist terms, I guess he’d be avoiding engaged agency (if this is wrong, please correct me, it’s been a while). So, his journey is to discover that there is more to life than just being the thing you thought you wanted to be when you were five. You also have to enjoy life and the movie points out that one of the best ways to do that is to be a little bit less uptight and a little more immature. Having never really been connected to anyone, at the end of the movie, Nicholas actually does have a successful relationship, it’s just not a romantic one.
Just like in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, the main character is a reflection of the antagonist (Shaun: Zombies, Gary: Network), in this case the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, who, just as Nicholas is dedicated to policework to his own personal detriment, are dedicated to their cause of being “Village of the Year” to the detriment of the citizens. This is represented best by the fact that Nicholas constantly repeats idealisms like “the law is the law,” while the NWA constantly repeat “the greater good.” Both of these are unforgiving maxims, enforced with no regard to what might be more humane. They even show that most of the people that Nicholas arrested without considering being more lenient are subsequently murdered by the NWA. It’s a great way to highlight the protagonist’s flaws, by showing that a slightly more absurd version of the same flaw would lead to something horrifying. Granted, it’s also that Angel wants to be superlative through hard work and exceptionalism whereas the NWA wants to be superlative by eliminating all which would drag them down (and, for the record, based on how many fatal “accidents” people mention in the movie, they’re doing it more than Murder, She Wrote). Basically, Angel wants to make the trains on time, while the NWA will kill everyone that makes them late.
Similarly, Nicholas has wanted to maintain the same image of himself from when he was five and decided that he wanted to be a police officer. The town, likewise, appears frozen in the past, having a rustic aesthetic, even with an Apple computer from the 90s. They both have tried to maintain the image they had in the past, to the point that they strongly resist anything that would change it.
The music, too, deserves a nod, and it’s always wonderful to watch a director that understands that the soundtrack and the score are a big part of the film experience. Granted, as well as it’s done here, it does pale in comparison to Wright’s song use in Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Still, the songs are well used and they tie in thematically, something that adds a lot to the experience.
The movie really does blend style and substance perfectly, an amazing example of exactly what film can do as a medium. It’s not too artistic to be watchable without effort, but the more effort you put into watching it, the more it rewards you. Hell, until the third or fourth watching, I didn’t notice that almost everyone’s name in the village is actually a profession (Skinner, Cooper, Hatcher, Staker, Treacher, Blower, Draper, Wainwright, Cartwright), yet another way to mirror that Angel is just his job, while the fact that they’re all archaic professions reinforces the village’s frozen nature. I imagine the only reason “Butterman” isn’t a profession name is because Nick Frost named the character as a condition of doing the film.
Additionally, the posters in the background change throughout the film, indicating which characters replace the functions of others, or how the NWA is manipulating the population in subtle ways. There’s probably still stuff I’m missing. I even had to have someone point out to me that N.W.A. was also the band that did “Fuck tha Police,” a great hidden joke. Seriously, the amount of effort that must have gone into this movie is mind-boggling.
To summarize, I love this movie. Aside from maybe Ghostbusters, Pulp Fiction, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I watch annually, this is the movie I’ve probably re-watched the most. Since it came on Netflix, I’ve probably watched it half a dozen times just when I want something fun on in the background. I’m glad that Edgar Wright has moved past the Cornetto Trilogy, but these films will always have a special place in my heart.
I’m going to do the rest of his films, but I think I’m going to make a special page just for these three reviews.