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A raddled rocker belatedly regains his long-lost mojo in Len and Company, a modestly promising first feature from much-garlanded commercials director Tim Godsall. Primarily a showcase for the spiky charisma of star Rhys Ifans, it’s a low-key study of strained family relations that creates and sustains a certain wryly flinty mood up until a disastrous 11th-hour lurch into violent melodrama. The presence of Juno Temple (The Dark Knight Rises), Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto) and Keir Gilchrist (It Follows) may spark some YA interest, but this is a very marginal proposition in commercial terms. Festival play will segue smoothly to small-screen exposure, where Ifans‘ swaggeringly crusty turn may generate a certain cult following.
At one point tipped for a Sundance competition bow, Len and Company instead ended up premiering at Edinburgh among no fewer than three other projects toplining the lanky Welshman. This one feels so tailor-made to his particular persona — he was briefly lead singer in revered Cardiff rock band Super Furry Animals; his current band, The Peth, appear on the soundtrack here — that it comes as a surprise to learn that the material dates back to a 2008 one-act stage play, Carly Mensch‘s Len, Asleep in Vinyl.
Stepping nimbly into a part originally created (during a brief run at the tiny McGinn/Cazale Theatre on Broadway) by Michael Cullen, Ifans exudes old-school Brit-punk attitude here as the fiftyish Len Black, who escaped a tough working-class background to achieve global fame as a performer-turned-producer. After working on mega-hit album Tantrum for the Spears-/Cyrus-esque Zoe (Temple), Len suffers a public meltdown during an awards ceremony and retreats to his upstate New York mini-mansion for some R&R. Barely has he arrived in the woodsy autumnal refuge, however, than he is surprised by a visit from his teenage son Max (Kilmer), who has musical ambitions of his own.
Undisguisedly scornful of his lad’s cosy middle-class upbringing, Len reminds the lad that proper rock and roll is a matter of “blood and bourbon and napalm” — dismissively comparing the hapless Max to “diet Dr Pepper.” Further complications arise in the form of other unwelcome visitors — Max’s mom, Isabelle (Kathryn Hahn), and, more disruptively, a beleaguered, paparazzi-hassled Zoe. These gradually push the unapologetically misanthropic, articulately vitriolic Len further toward exasperation and breaking point: “My sanctuary’s been invaded by needy little piglets,” he seethes.
A man clearly content to abandon the trappings of the 21st century, Len is happiest watching DVDs of classic British television shows such as unvarnished Cockney-cop classic The Sweeney and The Black Adder. Indeed, he’s such a discerning fan of the latter (co-created by Ifans‘ Notting Hill director Richard Curtis) that he only watches the superior first season, the one generally scorned by critics and viewers. But while his hard-bitten orneriness is hugely entertaining — his monologue to a class of bemused teens at his local school is worth the price of admission alone — it’s obviously only going to be a matter of time before Len’s frosty solipsism yields to gentler, more conventionally paternal emotions.
Shot in handsome chilly widescreen by Andre Pienaar, Len and Company is itself much more akin to diet soda than any kind of Molotovian whisky-napalm cocktail. Most effective in its quiet dialogue-heavy scenes, the picture stumbles when anything more dramatic is required: choppy, frantic editing marks Zoe’s prescription-drugs overdose, a development that sets up a bafflingly ill-judged final-reel surprise involving the startling incursion of a previously marginal character. It’s a Screenwriting 101 blunder from which the film struggles to recover, but one which Ifans manages to valiantly counterbalance in the closing moments by sheer bloody force of personality.
Production companies: QVF Inc., Anonymous Content
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Max Kilmer, Juno Temple, Keir Gilchrist, Elias Toufexis, Kathryn Hahn
Director: Tim Godsall
Screenwriters: Tim Godsall, Katharine Knight (based on the play ‘Len, Asleep in Vinyl’ by Carly Mensch)
Producers: Youree Henley, Rick Jarjoura
Executive producers: Evan Dec, Steve Golin, Michael J. Urann
Cinematographer: Andre Pienaar
Production designer: Paul D. Austerberry
Costume designer: Katry Sertic
Editor: Geoff Hounsell
Composer: Miles Hankins
Casting: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels
Sales: Seville International, Quebec
No Rating, 101 minutes
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