Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Lucky Jim (1957)

Adapted for the screen by the producer director team of (respectively) Roy and John Boulting, and starring Ian Carmichael, Lucky Jim is a minor forgettable piece of 1950s British comedy, and a disappointment considering the talent involved.

The story, based on the Kingsley Amis novel of the same name, follows the misadventures of Jim Dixon, a young history lecturer at a “redbrick” English university. Along the way he manages to unintentionally offend his colleagues and sabotage his career – but always comes out okay in the end, because, after all, he is “Lucky” Jim.

The film is hampered by an indecisiveness of what tone to take with the material, something that spills over into both the script and the casting. At times Dixon is shown as an “angry young man”, shaking up the stuffy world of academia with his unpretentious teaching style, and love of women and booze; at others he simply looks like a hapless boob, blundering around from mishap to mishap.

Ian Carmichael was an excellent comic actor, especially playing affable but clueless upper class types, such as in the far superior I’m Alright Jack (also made with John and Roy Boulting) or as Bertie Wooster in the 1960s BBC TV series World of Wooster. Here though, he seems uncertain what to do with Dixon, his vague generic northern accent hinting at lower middle-class provincial roots without ever convincing us.

In addition, wasting the talents of Terry Thomas is simply unforgivable. Thomas, like Carmichael, worked best within a limited range, but also had charisma and comic timing in abundance. Here he looks and acts like a sleazy middle-aged weirdo rather than the hip young sophisticated bohemian type his character is supposed to be.

The subject matter is also a problem. There is nothing wrong with satire aimed at a very specific set of people, but the satirists have to accept that it may not stretch to a wider audience. To do that you have to find a way to make the subject relevant to the wider world, and this, ultimately, is what Lucky Jim fails to do. The world of 1950s English academia, at least as presented here, is just too rarefied and obscure to make sense to anyone not familiar with its people and customs.