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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.30.14] United Kingdom comedy drama



Co-written, produced and directed by Graham Hughes, this dark comedy from Scotland concerns the ups and downs in the life a suicidal twenty-something named Tom (Graeme McGeagh), and it scores a point for its imaginative title, but that's where the praise ends. Completely banal from start to finish, the script is risibly mawkish and saccharine, the direction functional but unimaginative and the acting is almost shockingly awkward and stilted. The film is flatly lit, the sound design is all over the place, and the editing is clunky and lacks any sense of flow. People at film festivals complain constantly that mediocre films end up getting funded by mistake, either due to nepotism, lazy funding bodies or ignorant producers, and for once I'm right there with them. This is a film with a script and story which is so trite and badly judged it ought to have been aborted at the first hurdle, ideally by the writers themselves.

Tom's latest in a long line of suicide attempts is thwarted when he's given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by a stranger after walking into the sea. By necessity of script he's forced into counselling and made to complete a run of community service which involves helping a raggedy old puffin called Mr. Neilsen (Ray Crofter) to clean out his garage. His therapist is the unconventional Dr. Watson (Patrick O'Brien), whose cynicism and disinterest apparently belie a genuine desire to help his clients. In the doctor's waiting-room Tom meets a kooky girl named Eve (Annabel Logan), who takes an interest in his 'suicide blog' and vows to help him make his next attempt suitably successful and spectacular. Over the next few weeks, Tom spends time with each of his quirky and off-beat new friends, and learns that, hey, maybe living ain't so bad after all! Excuse me while I wipe the vomit from my chin.

Not wishing to trash the film unduly - although it must be said that it is a seriously grim experience - there are one or two interesting ideas which demonstrate the tone which the writers were going for. To enhance the fantasy elements of the story Hughes uses frequent cutaway sequences in which Tom, narrating from a theatre stage, introduces his Top 5 personal suicide attempts (curiously recycling footage from the film's introductory sequence), his favourite historical suicides (acted out by characters from the film who break the fourth wall to express their confusion) and short animated skits which are remarkably well crafted. The latter animations are cute and creative, and one can only imagine the disappointment of the art student who made them when viewing their work in the context of the completed film. They could work well as individual shorts.

These little moments aside, the rest of the film is conspicuously absent of thought, allowing the predictable plot-line to insipidly run its course. What strikes one foremost is simply how badly acted, written and shot the film is, and it begs the question of what the hell this film is doing at the EIFF. McGeagh as Tom is in the unenviable position of having to carry the story, and his default reaction to events is to roll his eyes and shake his head in disbelief while delivering his lines in a permanently sarcastic Glaswegian drawl. He does not invest any energy in bringing Tom to life, and the result is a weak performance and an unlikable lead character. Logan as Eve is, in many respects, the perfect foil for such a monotone and dour protagonist. She is the film's Manic Pixie Dream Girl, slipping into a 'crazy' American accent to pass kidney stones of homespun wisdom to our hero, before throwing a strop when he fails to return her calls after she leaves him several dozen phone messages. If ever there were a perfect example of why you should never pick up girls in a psychiatrist's waiting room, Eve would be it. As an actress Logan seems weirdly out of her depth here, fluffing lines and missing cues while attempting to appear cute and perky. Tom and Eve, then, do not make a terribly good screen couple. As Mr. Neilsen, Crofter gives such a lacklustre and snoozy performance that he's almost not worth mentioning at all, but suffice it to say, Tom will learn a few things from the old geezer about living life to the full, before he snuffs his lid.



Patrick O'Brien's therapist had the potential to be a great character. Had he been written and played straight he might have been a good counter-balance to the twee antics of Eve and Neilsen, but the meetings between Dr. Watson and Tom are played almost exclusively for cheap laughs, as the counsellor holds his sessions to the sounds of death metal, while wearing a sleeping bag and playing Sudoku puzzles. When the character was introduced I really thought it might signal a move to a more intelligent and dry mode of humour, but this is no Dr. Katz.

During conversation, characters make constant references to the evils of the cliché as if this will somehow distract the viewer from their ubiquitous presence in the story, and this illustrates one of the most obvious problems with the script. When you sense the mind of the writer behind the words of the characters, you cannot take the material at face value. The difference between writing for a soap opera and a feature film is often expressed in terms of how your characters communicate with one another. Typically a soap character must verbalise exactly what's on their mind at all times in order to move the story along quickly and efficiently, whereas with film time and care need to be taken not to let your characters' motivations become too obvious, otherwise they will appear two-dimensional and badly constructed. The characters in Spectacular Suicide do not contain even an ounce of truth to them, and for all their babbling might as well be living on Mars. The big mystery of the film's narrative is why Tom should want to kill himself, and this is the only question which keeps us from getting up and leaving (17 people walked out of the screening and did not return) and when this information is finally extracted it is with all the nuance and insight of a sledgehammer to the groin.

The film is cut to the sounds of some feel-good indie-rock (I really wish I were joking!) which plays during montages punctuating the narrative, and yet the sound design itself is wildly inconsistent. Off-screen dialogue seems to have been added in post-production, but spliced in alongside audio recorded during filming, causing a noticeable shift in quality during conversations. While Hughes manages at least to provide competent camera work, he relies solely on boring master shots leading to awkwardly edited shot-reverse-shots, upward angles and the occasional slow pan just to show when a character is deep in thought. This gives the film a tremendously televisual quality, and again we're wondering why it's showing in a cinema. The colour palette is dull, giving the film a slightly amateurish and hum-drum feel to it and the editing is flat-out terrible, with scenes lingering painfully after a final punchline is delivered, while the characters sit there blinking as if this might give cause for a chuckle (it doesn't).

Populating your screenplay with annoyingly idiosyncratic characters is not a substitute for good writing. A little quirk goes a long way, and that's putting it mildly. When you're tackling a subject as complex and serious as self-termination and making it the focus of a comedy, it helps to make sure your film is original, sharp and well-considered. A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide is none of these things, nor is it even mildly offensive or controversial, which would at least have given it some punch; it's just bland and irritating. After seeing the film I found my copy of Lone Scherfig's 'Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself', which I saw at the cinema back in 2002 when I was 18 years-old. It's a darkly comic film also set in Glasgow, also about a suicidal man forced into therapy. It's an intelligent, insightful and nuanced piece of work with great performances from Shirley Henderson, Jamie Sives and Mads Mikkelsen. Check it out. Avoid this.


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Rick (7 years ago) Reply

This much resentment towards a film suggests the writer ("projectcyclops"??) had a personal axe to grind.

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projectcyclops (7 years ago) Reply

Not at all, Rick. There was nothing personal in my reaction to the film, just that it was utter pish from start to finish.

My beef is more with the festival itself though, which I do not think ought to be booking films which reflect so badly on the state of film production in Scotland. If this is the best they can do (and there are much better local films being made here) then EIFF really must be going down the toilet. It was a bad film and had no place being at EIFF, illustrated perhaps by the startling amount of people who walked out of the cinema in frustration.

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Rick (7 years ago) Reply

I really respect your replying to my post, 'projectcyclops' but I find it somewhat disheartening that you have taken to ripping this film apart with such apparent glee.
I've yet to see the film so am unqualified to really dispute your comments but a lot of the obsevations made veer more towards cruel than critical. We should consider this film has probably been made for next to nothing by a number of first timers who likely deserve a little more encouragement for their efforts.

I would certainly welcome an article highlighting the local film talent you feel could do with attention. You've got a great platform to shine a light on those starting out.

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projectcyclops (7 years ago) Reply

Rick, thanks for your reply. The tone of my review for this film is scathing, but it reflects my frustration at having to sit through a film which I found equally unpleasant. Everything I have said about the film is true from my perspective, and I make what I believe are valid critical observations about the quality of the writing, acting and direction. When a film is selected to play at a festival, it is open to the same level of criticism as any other (whether complimentary or cruel), and I do not alter my approach based on the experience or financial resources of the film-makers. It could be this film, or Transformers 4, but a poor film will get a bad review.

I suspect some of my vitriol stems from how badly judged the material is in relation to its subject. A comedy about suicide which is neither funny nor well handled, but simply boring and cack-handed, is actually worse than something which is deliberately offensive or dumb. Feel-good comedies are tricky, but when they are poor they can be infuriating. I admit certain parts of of the review are cruel, but I completely stand by what I've said, and how I said it.

I would hope the film-makers know that my opinion is not the only one though, and if their next project works out better, I may well give it a positive review.

If I were paid to write these reviews I would consider doing articles about the state of film production in Scotland as well, but I do not have the time or (frankly) the inclination to do so, and I doubt the site would be interested anyway.

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guido_jenkins (7 years ago) Reply

i must say the music for the trailer is good... anybody know what the song is???


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