Thursday, 22 June 2017

Elephant Juice (1999)

Elephant Juice is a 1999 movie from the creator and one of the directors of the seminal BBC series (and a big favourite of mine) This Life. The divine Daniela Nardini, who made her name in that show as Anna, the post feminist icon, appears here too as part of the Generation X ensemble in a story that sits comfortably somewhere between This Life and Cold Feet.

I'm classing this as a first watch even though I feel almost certain that I've seen it (or at the very least some of it) before. It seems fitting somehow, as Elephant Juice itself seems very much like a half forgotten film. The DVD (which I picked up cheap, arguably for Nardini) is one of those early '00s affairs, when 'special features' basically meant you were given the added opportunity of scrolling through pages of long text which outlined cast and crew filmographies and production notes. In the latter notes, the director Sam Miller uses the phrase 'pre-millennial zeitgeist' when describing the film and I guess your opinion of the film ultimately depends on whether such a phrase endears you or sends you running to the hills. Make no mistake, Elephant Juice details the troubled lives of a group of relatively privileged London based Gen X yuppies in the latter stages of the twentieth century. It is writer Amy Jenkins' belief that when we approach thirty we enter a second stage of the traditional coming-of-age phase which is supposed to set us up for the rest of our adult lives. With this in mind, our characters are aware that time is moving on and that they either a) should be in a relationship with 'the one' or b) should be making the relationship they are in fit, despite all the warning signs that it is perhaps not going to. Jenkins will argue that this is a common theme that will speak universally to an audience, so why doesn't Elephant Juice work?

Well apart from the fact that it's a romantic comedy drama that seems utterly devoid of laughs, I think the main issue here is that the characters, whose predicaments we are supposed to universally relate too, just aren't all that likeable. Sean Gallagher's emotionally inexperienced Billy is our point of identification, but he's just too wet both in terms of writing and in performance to truly endear us to him. His best friend Will (Daniel Lapaine) is a familiar cretin; attractive to women, arrogant and completely ruled by his genitals. His friendship with Billy is built on the fact that as long as Billy is emotionally undeveloped, then he too can get away with being an immature love rat. Will is in a relationship with long suffering Jules (Emmanuelle Béart, in her first English film) who Billy secretly holds a candle for, but Will is also sleeping with anything that comes into his orbit, including Billy's new girlfriend Dodie (Kimberley Williams) and Daphne, Daniela Nardini's character; a troubled soul not unlike This Life's Anna, who is just starting a relationship with the level headed, sensitive Frank (Mark Strong) Rounding out the ensemble are gay couple Graham and George (Lennie James and Lee Williams); Graham is older, more experienced with the scene and keen to settle down, whereas George is an androgynous young model who is still experiencing life. Of the whole bunch, it's these latter characters (Daphne, Frank, Graham and George) who are situated on the periphery, who are the most interesting and the fact that the film doesn't focus as much on them makes it a bit of a chore.

The film is structured in quite a free form way, with a dinner party providing some ballast and scenes in which the respective dramatic arcs are shaped by a series of preceding inter-titles that take their cue from the kind of question/chapter headings you would find in popular self help books of the time. As a time capsule depicting the dilemmas of relationships for twentysomethings in late twentieth century Britain, Elephant Juice is perhaps handy enough. But ultimately, and perhaps because of Jenkins and Miller's roots, it feels less like a film and more like a one-off TV drama, and overall there's a whiff of unnatural pretentiousness to the proceedings that makes it hard to connect fully despite some good performances, chiefly from Béart (who subtly draws on her émigré status to build on her character's isolation and misplaced loyalty to Will) and the reliable Nardini, Strong and James in support.

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