By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Tom Meeten, June Watson and Katherine Parkinson
Directed by Nick Gillespie
Written by Matt White, Brook Driver and Nick Gillespie
Bonnbouche Media/Belstone Pictures
I don’t know if PAUL DOOD’S DEADLY LUNCH BREAK was in the works before JOKER came out, but it’s hard not to think of that film while watching it, or about THE KING OF COMEDY, itself a clear influence on the Joaquin Phoenix-starrer. A plot similar to the latter is told with a similar attitude to the former in British filmmaker Nick Gillespie’s uneven and uneasy marriage of media-age satire and over-the-top bloodshed.
Paul Dood (Tom Meeten) is a 40-ish aspiring entertainer living at home with his mum Julie (June Watson), who’s his number-one fan, and also his only fan. But he’s convinced he’s got what it takes to be a star, and to go far beyond his job in a London charity store (that’s thrift shop to us Yanks) and posting barely viewed videos on the Trend Ladder social-media app. It so happens that Trend Ladder is hosting a talent competition being judged by on-line celebrity Jack Tapp (Kevin Bishop), and when Paul discovers the auditions are happening a week earlier than he thought, he desperately races to the site, pushing Julie in her wheelchair. But the wheels of fate turn against Paul, embodied by a series of officious and obnoxious people who get in the way of making his destination, followed by the disdainful Tapp himself. And soon after, Paul is asking his boss/psychiatrist-in-training Jayney (Pippa Haywood) what she knows about revenge…
The first act of PAUL DOOD’S DEADLY LUNCH BREAK walks a thin line between sympathizing with Paul and making fun of him, not always steadily. Director/co-writer Nick Gillespie, a frequent DP/cameraman on Ben Wheatley’s films whose previous feature was the very different TANK 432, makes Paul a ridiculous figure with his hideous shiny outfit and clear lack of both singing/dancing ability and social skills. His one humanizing feature is his relationship with his mum, who’s infirm and addled and loves her son, and is played with feeling instead of caricature by Watson. Gillespie has beneficially stocked the film with fine performers from Wheatley’s filmography, including SIGHTSEERS’ Steve Oram and Alice Lowe as, respectively, an obtrusive train-station worker and the assistant to a callous priest (Kris Marshall). On the other hand, Katherine Parkinson, as a mall cleaning girl who’s taken a shine to Paul, is underused, and there are moments when characters make unnecessarily obvious observations, as when the religious duo steal a cab from Paul and the assistant announces, “I just love fucking people over.”
Paul, however, does not take well to being fucked over and indulges in a funny and gruesome payback fantasy. Then he takes the eponymous departure from work to make that fantasy a reality, though things do not, of course, go as planned. Horrible fates are in store for those who have interfered with Paul’s happiness, though Gillespie and co-writers Matt White and Brook Driver are careful to absolve Paul of personal responsibility for them. There’s a sense of holding back on the material’s darker possibilities, for all the explicit bodily and cranial damage courtesy of makeup effects artist Tristan Versluis (HOT FUZZ, EX MACHINA) in the movie’s second half. The filmmakers like Paul too much to take him to the place the story seems to want him to go, and the black-comic impact is blunted as a result.
PAUL DOOD’S DEADLY LUNCH BREAK turns out to be a feel-good journey rather than a savage satire, and as such it works to the extent it does thanks in large part to Meeten’s performance in the lead. Though the characterization is off-putting at first, we do eventually come to feel for Paul and his quest to find some meaning and purpose in his life, even if those goals are rooted in the instant gratification of social-media fame. Throughout, there are easy points scored against the cybermilieu and its inhabitants, and it’s no surprise when Tapp, the center of Paul’s fantasies, turns out to be an egotistical prick with a cowardly center. There’s no thought given to the possibility that the celebrity-obsessed Paul, should his desires come true, might curdle into the same kind of jerk Tapp has become; PAUL DOOD’S DEADLY LUNCH BREAK is content to view him through rose-colored glasses, with some splatters of darker red around the edges.