Do you remember that scene at the end of "The Sound of Music" in which the family Von Trapp sneaks out of Austria one at a time during a singing performance? So do screenwriter Ronan Bennett and director Peter Cattaneo ("The Full Monty"), who borrowed the idea for their far-fetched but passably entertaining British prison escape comedy "Lucky Break."
As a matter of fact, in a stroke of intentional irony Cattaneo cast Christopher Plummer -- Capt. Von Trapp himself -- as the prison's warden, whose dream of producing his own musical becomes the catalyst for a group of ambitious jailbirds to make getaway plans.
Lead by charmingly surly, hound dog-featured James Nesbit ("Waking Ned Devine"), the convicts (including comical English actors Timothy Spall, Bill Nighy and Lennie James) rehearse the warden's Gilbert and Sullivan-styled operetta about Admiral Horatio Nelson in the prison's disused old chapel while working out a way to employ stage props to go "over the wall."
But the movie's best laughs come not from the sight of hardened criminals being turned into inept songsters, but from character-establishing comedy. The film opens with Nesbit's backstory as a hapless bank robber (we see his face splattered blue with exploding dye after peeking in a bag of money) and a born criminal. "When we were kids, we always wanted to play cops and robbers," he says. "Trouble was, none of us wanted to be the cop."
He's in prison less than half an hour before he takes the first of many frequent trips to "the hole" after tweaking the Napoleonic captain of the guards. And it isn't long before he's putting the moves on the prison's outreach counselor -- the pretty, compassionate Olivia Williams ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Sixth Sense") -- who is reluctantly tapped as the play's female lead. She wouldn't last five minutes in a non-comedy prison, of course. But here even the worst inmates are generally gentlemanly and polite.
One of those worst inmates (Frank Harper) soon throws a wrench in the works however, demanding to be a part of the show and the breakout after word of the plan spreads around the prison population. Once that happens, the plot slips into an obvious trajectory and the film's early creativity dwindles while, quite awkwardly, an unwieldy sentimentality seeps in to takes its place. Cattaneo honestly doesn't realize how forced the emotions feel when he tries to wring out tears over one sad-sack prisoner's suicide. "Lucky Break" doesn't have "The Full Monty's" ability to endear us to its somewhat stock characters -- it's like a movie full of sidekicks without an action hero -- so his attempt fails and almost takes the movie with it.
But what "Lucky Break" does have in common with "The Full Monty" is a go-with-the-flow spirit that inspires a little light-hearted matinee leeway. Even if it ultimately disappoints, the picture does have about a discount admission's worth of funny to keep it afloat.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th April 2002
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
Fresh: 21 Rotten: 23
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Peter Cattaneo
Starring: James Nesbitt as James 'Jimmy' Hands, Olivia Williams as Annabel, Timothy Spall as Cliff, Christopher Plummer as Graham Mortimer, Bill Nighy as Roger, Lennie James as Rudy, Ron Cook as Perry, Peter Wight as l'officier George Barratt, Celia Imrie as Amy, Raymond Waring as Darren
Also starring: Frank Harper