On this episode of The Nightly Chill, we look at The Hippopotamus, a snarky, witty comedy based on the novel by Stephen Fry!
When a drunken, disgraced writer suddenly reunites with his terminally ill goddaughter, she tasks him with investigating a series of unexplained miracles at her family’s country manor in The Hippopotamus.
BIT OF FRY
Directed by John Jencks and based on the novel by Stephen Fry, The Hippopotamus is a strange little movie that is delightfully dark, twisted, and snarky in all the right ways.
In fact, if the movie has any glaring fault to find, it would likely be in how the movie perfectly translates Fry’s voice only to not feature him in any capacity.
Instead, we get Roger Allam in the lead role of Ted Wallace, the semi-successful, self-loathing poet turned theater critic. And while Allam does an amazing job as this aging, talented lech, it’s hard not to wonder what the role would have been like if Stephen Fry were cast in his place, speaking the words he wrote–words that still sound as if he’s speaking them.
Of course, this isn’t to deny the fantastic work by Allam or his supporting cast. Tommy Knight especially stands out as Ted’s quirky, mysterious godson, David–a young man seemingly gifted with the power of a healing touch.
Nor is this to say the movie’s lacking a few weak links, because it’s not. In fact, the movie has quite a few characters who exist to fulfill a single, specific role and little else. And the performances by the actors in these roles are never outstanding in any real way. The material simply isn’t there for the actors in such roles to shine.
Of course, if more of the roles were written and performedlike Ted or even Tim McInnerny’s flamboyant, desperate Oliver, the movie might be all the better for it. It certainly might be a bit more palatable for American audiences that are accustomed to entire casts of big, loud comedians.
That’s all possible. But it’s also likely that the movie would suffer from having too much of a good thing.
Dry wit and charm is wonderful and all. But if every character is presented in such a way, it starts to become noise. It becomes apparent that every character speaks like everyone else. More to the point, they all speak like the writer. All you need to do is look at works from writers and directors like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon to see how such a thing can become a problem, even if their work is popular.
SNARK AND HEART
That said, well-performed utility roles do keep the movie focused and played straight while allowing Ted–and his narrations–to be the primary source of comedy.
Because for all its colorful language, strange and charming characters, and biting critique of both England’s apparently self-absorbed upper-class and man’s desperate hope for miracles in the face of death, the movie never forgets to be funny.
But more importantly, it never forgets to tell an engaging story with relatable characters. It never reduces anything or anyone to a gag–something a lot of American comedies would do well to keep in mind.
And what I mean by this is that without the jokes, the movie would still play out as a good bit of drama. There’s a good mystery at play. And even the stuffiest of characters are still,
at their heart, people first and stereotypes second. The humor simply alters the experience, perhaps even enhancing it in many ways. Alternatively, the comedy never exists to simply cover up any issues the movie might have with its characters, plot, or dialog.
SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
That all said, The Hippopotamus isn’t for everyone. It’s definitely a prime example of the sort of smart, dry humor the British are known for. And as such, this might be a movie some of us in the states may have trouble with.
This one isn’t noisy. It isn’t overtly wacky in any real sense. And it certainly isn’t quirky in the style of Wes Anderson. Now, there are moments where the jokes go big, but even such things are restrained so as to keep it in line with the rest of the movie.
For those looking for something smart, witty, and wholly engaging, you would do right by yourself to CHILL with The Hippopotamus. But if you are up to the task of diving into something completely different from what you might be used to, this one is definitely worth adding to your queue and watching when you have the opportunity.