thu 12/12/2019

Money, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Money, BBC Two

Money, BBC Two

Why didn't they just go the whole hog and make 'Money - the Musical!'?

Nick Frost is more koala than grizzly in this luke-warm adaption of Martin Amis's 'Money'

It was never going to work now, was it? Martin Amis’s dense yet surging 400-page novel condensed down to just two hours of primetime TV? But director Jeremy Lovering, along with writers Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford (Ashes to Ashes) certainly have a good bash at it. On the plus side, many of Amis’s original words, dialogue and set-pieces were left intact. On the minus side, where do I start? The first problem is that Nick Frost was miscast. Not woefully miscast - physically he fits the bill – but Simon Pegg’s comic sidekick is more cuddly koala than dead-eyed grizzly, as Amis’s morally void, farcically unreliable narrator John Self demands.

Self is a hedonistic ex-adman who moves from London to New York in order to turn his money into lots more money by getting into the movies. Once there, he meets a bunch of sexy and/or grotesque Amis archetypes (played by, among others, a suitably two-dimensional Jerry Hall) who give him the run-around as he tries to get a film called Money made. Money was unquestionably one of the best novels of the Eighties. It’s a blacker-than-black comedy in which the reader has the nearest thing you can get to a literary virtual-reality experience, seeing the world through Self’s eyes as a Hieronymus Bosch-like rolling nightmare in which pleasure and pain follow each other, and eventually become almost indistinguishable.

The only thing that might have prepared Frost, bless him, for this nigh-on impossible acting challenge was facing down a few comic zombies in Shaun of the Dead. Even another one-time comic actor, Mel Smith - who Amis told Jasper Rees on theartsdesk was once a possible for the part when Money was nearly brought to the screen – would, on the surface, seem a better choice: he looks more capable of delivering an effective head butt, or girlfriend swipe, than Frost. Amis's Self is jaded, derailed, and most definitely on the way to a hell of his own making. With Frost in his urine-soaked shoes, he’s just another bloke out on the piss.

But I don’t want to put the blame of the failings of this film wholly on the leading man’s shoulders. Like many of our best actors, Frost makes playing himself look easy, which it obviously isn’t. And he was clearly cast for a reason. The reason being, I suspect, that post Harry Potter, the infantilised, mollycoddled public has come to expect the main character in a novel or film to be someone they can like, relate to, and even take to their hearts. And if you can love or identify with Amis’s version of John Self then you are in big, big trouble. So the writers here presumably decided that their Self had to be much less self-centred and have much more self-respect. Frost is a lovable, friendly geezer, and also a name you can put above the title - as they have done. So it was - as a character from Money might say - a done deal.

As for the rest of the film, I was hoping that the producers might have found a young Roeg or Scorsese to take this raging bull of a novel by the horns and turn it into great TV, but Lovering did only a workman-like job. Money as a novel is immersive, this film was the opposite, rarely doing what films are supposed to do: make you forget where you are, who you are and what you are doing. Its central character may have done all three of these things for much of the film's running time, but his permanent state of discombobulation rarely came across on the screen.

And then there was the pace. Frost had to deliver sizeable chunks of Amis’s original prose in the form of a voiceover. In theory this is an admirable idea in that this novel is all about the words. But in practice, prose travels at different speeds. So while Jeremy Irons was perfect for intoning Nabokov’s and Waugh’s measured, stately prose (in Lolita and Brideshead Revisited, respectively) Frost is no match for Amis’s turbo-charged and dazzlingly mercurial game with language as it conjures Self’s drink- and drug-induced mood and mind swings. Frost seems to be just chatting to a mate in his local, rather than trying to keep hold of his sanity. It’s a functional enough way to do the job for this sitcom take on the novel, but I feel that the whole momentum of the film would have been picked up if he’d just flown with it more.

There was also a problem when the novel’s version of Self occasionally slipped through the cracks, turning sitcom back into nightmare. At one point he casually remarked (and it’s the casualness which is shocking), “I wanted to hit her, but really I was trying to kick that habit.” How was our affable Nick ever going to deliver a line like that and make us believe he means it? Maybe they should have put David Thewlis on a fried-chicken-and-donuts diet for six months and given him the role.

Money the TV drama tried to have its coke and snort it by being superficially faithful to its source material while also giving it a complete tone makeover. There was even a feel-good ending, would you believe? The makers would have been truer to the gaudy neon spirit of the book if they’d gone the whole hog with their reinvention - maybe by looking at Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective and making Money – The Musical! What a joy that might have been. Inexplicably, Mr Amis himself likes the adaptation. There’s no accounting for taste.

I was hoping that the producers might have found a young Roeg or Scorsese to take this raging bull of a novel by the horns and turn it into great TV

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Comments

an excellent and incisice dissection of the film. I haven't seen the movie as a matter of fact, but your reviewer has persuaded me I don't need to. As he says the book's meaning resides in its use of language. simply using that as voice-over is a pitifully lame solution. As for the idea of a feel-good ending...

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