By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
The cleverly convoluted “What About Dick?” is an onstage script reading before a live audience by a cast that includes several of Britain’s top comedic talents. Written by and starring Monty Python’s Eric Idle, this slice of surreal silliness is a thoroughly entertaining theater-of-the-mind treat.
Far from a bare-bones workshop-style production, “What About Dick?” boasts a retro radio-drama set, colorfully eccentric outfits and an onstage band, making the film an everything-old-is-new-again entertainment experience. Although the scripts-in-hand actors are limited to standing behind microphones to deliver their lines, their vocal performances are so animated that any actual running about and such would seem superfluous.
What’s thoroughly modern about the movie is the way audiences will see it. Instead of debuting in theaters or on home video, the film is available exclusively by digital download from the website whataboutdick.com.
Plot-wise, “What About Dick?” is a wildly absurd mystery that meanders from England to India to Italy in the early 20th century. Idle appears as both a narrating piano and a piano mover. A three-piece suit-wearing Russell Brand plays the Dick of the title, a young man of “ambivalent sexuality” who “knows nothing about everything.” He also portrays a coarse would-be adulterer named Leonard Bastard whose wife Enid (Tracey Ullman) reads posteriors instead of palms.
Ullman also plays the upper-crust Aunt Maggie, whose high-society propriety doesn’t prevent her from enjoying the pleasures of a certain sexual-surrogate implement manufactured by the Hudson Rubber Company.
Eddie Izzard steals the show as the refined and dignified Mr. Hudson and as the Indian-accented Deepak Obi Ben Kingsley. A scene in which Izzard alternates between two microphones when those characters have an extended chat is one of the film’s highlights. Other fun bits are his impressive phonetic reading of a lengthy Italian passage as a hotel manager, and an ad-libbed “Spanish inquisition” reference that clearly amuses Idle.
Tim Curry is the lustfully gay Reverend Whoopsie, who rationalizes his carnal desires by noting that “our Lord himself had 12 male friends, all of them sailors, and no one said anything.”
Jim Piddock, a Christopher Guest movie regular whose roles here include an army sergeant and another piano mover, acts and sounds uncannily like Monty Python’s Michael Palin. Jane Leeves plays Aunt Maggie’s lustful but endlessly frustrated niece Emma. Maggie’s other niece Helena, who has a strange obsession with umbrellas, is played by the stunning Sophie Winkleman, possibly best known to American TV viewers as Zoey on “Two and a Half Men” and to UK audiences as Big Suze on “Peep Show.”
The film’s weak link, depending on your tolerance for bloopers, is Billy Connolly as the incomprehensible Scottish Inspector McGuffin. Where the rest of the cast does an admirable job of staying in character no matter how absurd the plot gets, Connolly cracks himself up in nearly every one of his scenes. Considering that the filmed version of “What About Dick?” was assembled from four nights of performances, it’s hard not to wonder if Connolly ever kept a straight face during the onstage antics.
Winkleman and Leeves get two of the best naughty-but-nice songs: Winkleman’s sweetly euphemistic “My Piano” and Leeves’ “Blow Me a Kiss in the Moonlight.” Curry and Brand duet on the campy “Different, Not Gay” (“He’s not the same as other boys, he likes to play with different toys”).
On the technical side, “What About Dick?” fortunately includes no audience shots until the end of the film. Instead of cutting to laughing ticket-buyers between gags, director Idle opts for shots of other cast members clearly delighting in the proceedings.
Guaranteed to raise a smile, “What About Dick?” is an enjoyably absurd romp.