There used to be an ad on British TV about the first thing you’d buy when you’d won the lottery, and a middle-aged Northern Lass would tell you she’d buy “two jars of Mellow Birds coffee” (can you guess what the advert was for?). It was a laugh but it made a very fair point: If you suddenly had the power to buy anything or do anything, chances are your first thoughts would something completely dumb and mundane. Something you could have easily got anyway. Why? Because while we all like to dream about being endlessly rich and powerful, the simple truth is we wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it and probably end of up wasting it because our entire life experiences become irrelevant. The laws and constraints they followed suddenly smashed away leaving us like a caveman with his first fire. Absolute power begets absolute cluelessness as Simon Pegg finds out in his new comedy when the powers of the Universe fall into his largely unimaginative (but humorous) hands.
Aspiring writer/miserable school teacher Neil (Simon Pegg – Star Trek, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) is given the power to make absolutely anything he wants happen simple by waving his hand. Little does he know that it’s a test by a super powerful alien council to see if he uses them for good or evil, with the Earth’s destruction hanging in the balance.
This film could easily be called Monty Python Presents Bruce Almighty for Atheists (well, they’ve had enough religious controversy for one lifetime) as the influence of the British comedy royalty is ever present. Firstly, there’s a snake at the helm, as this is Terry Jones’s first directed film in a decade, then all 5 five surviving members feature in alien voice roles and finally much of the film has their almost cartoon like feel of exaggerated slapstick. All of that is great on paper but at the same time it tries to have grounded elements of realism and even social commentary. It delivers many sequences that could make it a children friendly family comedy, and others that drop more swear words per minute than N.W.A. While it may often be amusing, the major problem with Absolutely Anything is that it tries to be absolutely everything. The tone is an utter jumbled mess that constantly feels indecisive and the plot directionless as we follow a stumbling Neil trying to get the girl; Kate Beckinsale’s (Underworld, Total Recall) neighbour Catherine. The whole premise of good and evil really doesn’t come into it enough either as too much feels like incidental scenes crammed together..... like a Flying Circus collection of sketches. A large section of the story centring on Catherine’s character even feels like dead weight with too much needless exposition about her. Does she really need an evil ex-boyfriend AND a creepy leachy boss? It takes the focus too far away Neil’s journey of moral dilemma which is supposed to be the point of the film.
However, in a comedy film the first consideration should always be they humour and even if only through the grit and determination of a lavishly talented cast, it does find many good laughs. Although the script struggles with the powers concept on a macro scale, on a smaller scale it’s far more effective with plenty of great laughs coming from Neil’s frustration and lack of understanding. There’s a good running theme of clever wordplay gags as Neil repeatedly gets what he asks for rather than what he wants (including a joyous little nod to an infamous zom-rom-com). It may be an old trick from any wish granting based format, but it’s one that the film does well. The best laughs come from the voice cast and top of that list is the late (and deeply missed) Robin Williams in his final role as Neil’s dog Dennis, given the powers of speech and rationality. The result is a more adult version of Up’s Dug. Williams is hysterical as a puts a human twist common canine traits like going crazy with excitement when the doorbell rings or being unable to control his love for his master. The Python alumni of Cleese, Idle, Gilliam, Jones and Palin all do well as the all powerful aliens with hilarious names like Sharon and Janet but the bright and glaring CG detracts from them a bit. It would have been better to make them all real life prosthetics, like variants on the aliens from Life of Brian (who cameo if you look closely). Some of the jokes do feel a tad warn out and dated which supports Jones’s statements that the script has been around for 20 years (it appears not everything stayed fresh).
Simon Pegg has many top notch comedic performances under his belt. While Absolutely Anything will not be joining them, fans of his usual mixture of calmness and calamity will be satisfied by the results. The material may be not always be there but Pegg certainly is and without his composure in the centre the film would have corrupted absolutely. Beckinsale is mostly there to perved and obsessed over by half the male cast but even when in the spotlight she doesn’t shine very bright. Elsewhere Ron Diggle’s (Step Brothers, Let’s Be Cops) US Military ex-boyfriend is just an annoying, Sanjeev Bhaskar’s (Goodness Gracious Me, The Zero Theorem) feels bland, Joanna Lumley’s (Absolutely Fabulous, Wolf of Wall Street) evil book show host is a waste but at least Eddie Izzard’s (Ocean’s 13, Hannibal) Head Teacher uses his few scenes well.
Just like the powers of its working class messiah (or just a naughty boy?), Absolutely Anything has limitless potential but the result feels all to limited. It should have been one of the year’s top comedies but instead has to stretch up to be average. But hey! Hearing RW’s voice one last time is actually worth the price of admission alone (and stay for the brilliant outtake tribute) so by all means go and see this film for that. Just expect superpowers rather than miracles.