A rather hysterical oddity that can't decide what era it's set in or what mood to play, Piccadilly Jim just chucks it all at the screen and hopes that some wit will come through and generate some laughs. Fortunately for the audience, some of it does - unfortunately for the film, not nearly enough.
Based on P.G. Wodehouse's novel, the film concerns the exploits of one Jim Crocker (Sam Rockwell), a young wastrel whose social-climbing American mother (Allison Janney, sharp as a tack) has forced him and his father (Tom Wilkinson), a failed British actor, to live in London and try and impress the swells there. She does this just to tick off her competitive sister, Nesta (Brenda Blethyn), a fact not wasted on the men of the family. Spoiling his mother's plans is Jim's penchant to booze it up all over town, getting into fistfights and leaving flappers scattered about the house and in his bed. Jim decides to ostensibly reform his wayward ways when he meets Nesta's step-niece Anne (Frances O'Connor), who won't have anything to do with him unless he pretends to be someone else - Jim once wrote a gossip column under the name "Piccadilly Jim", and once someone else writing the column (he hasn't worked on it for years) gave a negative review to a collection of Anne's poems. Jim thusly does the only sensible thing a fellow could do: He pretends to be a teetotaler Christian named Algernon Bayliss. Somehow, along the way, a German spy and some scientific secrets come into play, but one would be well-served to not wonder how.
Just because Piccadilly Jim is all over the place (in structure, mood, setting, and just about any way you could think of) doesn't mean that it was doomed from the start. Wodehouse never wrote books that were all of a piece, they were usually just waif-thin plots that strung together his shtick of comically bored, lazy, and inept British aristocrats engaged in idle banter. But in director John McKay's baffled hands, the film never quite manages to stay on its feet. Careening from full-throttle farce to light-hearted badinage to earnest romance, there's no unified tone, and with the addition of pointless anachronisms (although the general look is the 1930s, there are some additions like modern automobiles and torch singers belting out new wave tunes) it just seems like a big old mess. In the midst of all this atonal turmoil, a good number of cast members are doing their game best to have a good time, and it shows. Rockwell, Wilkinson, and Janney are spot-on in their roles (they just mesh together, in a dysfunctional family sort of way), and would be an excellent cast were this book ever put on Broadway.
However, it's not entirely clear what movie Frances O'Connor was made to think she was in, but pity that movie, whatever it is. Overacting doesn't even cover what she does on the screen, sheer flailing confusion is more like it. Banging and loud where Rockwell is assured and smooth, O'Connor's performance is the ultimate cause of the film's failure, the tipping point that pushes it from enjoyable frivolity to just plain puzzling.
It's hard to ruin Wodehouse, but somehow, this film just about manages it.
Reviewed at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival.