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Lead Balloon (2006)
A British version of Curb Your Enthusiasm
Lead Balloon is something like a British version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, although toned down for British sensibilities. But the core is almost exactly the same. Jack Dee plays Rick Spleen, a comedian whose career isn't going as well as it might. The show is mostly about his home and personal life (the kitchen is a staple location), and how he blunders into embarrassing scrapes because of his vaguely sociopathic personality.
It shares the same starting-at-your-fingernails cringe rating as sitcoms such as The Office too, and is less a situation comedy than a 'personality comedy' -- typically the show will wind up with the camera fixated on Dee, as he comes to a sticky end because of his actions.
In many ways this style of sitcom is nothing new. Social faux pas has been a staple of British sitcoms since Terry and June, or The Good Life. What's developed here is the degree of character assassination, which is inherited from The Office or Steve Coogan's shows. Sadly, the only character with any depth is Dee's, and the show sometimes feels like a vehicle for him. The character of Spleen's wife, in particular, makes little sense, and seems to be there simply as a sounding board for Dee's character; at least June Whitfield sometimes got a funny line to say.
While The Office was funny because it was so plausible (and familiar), this sitcom set "behind the curtain" of the media world is less so. Still, there are some very well observed touches, such as Rick Spleen's daughter and her boyfriend, who somehow epitomise modern youth, with their complete self-interest.
The second series is better than the first, but one can still feel comedy cogs grinding against each other. Somehow it doesn't quite work. Ultimately it's a very thin soup. It's not enough to throw characters into an embarrassing situation and watch what happens.
Vastly underrated film
Barecelona is a vastly underrated movie that achieved little success outside of art-house theatres on its release. This is a shame because the movie is both intelligent, funny and has broad appeal.
It concerns the adventures of two Americans who find themselves in Barcelona in the early Eighties at the height of the cold war. Ted is an uptight and repressed businessman while Fred is his airforce cousin who's a great deal more relaxed. The film starts with Fred forcing himself on his reluctant cousin's hospitality having just arrived in Barcelona.
Yet this isn't a buddy movie. In fact, it's very hard to classify and is by no means typical of an American movie. It's far more European in style.
The movie is about clashes of cultures and it's here that the humour is generated. Fred and Ted's differing attitudes and intelligence levels rub up against each other, and the old debate about the differences between male and female outlooks get a look in too. But the largest culture clash is that of urban left-wing Northern Spain versus the naturally conservative and bullish Americanism. This sounds heavy and intellectual but it isn't - the film makes fun of the American culture of living according self-help guides, for example, but also makes fun of a Spanish journalist-cum-philosopher who turns out to be equally shallow.
The strongest elements of the movie are the script, which is as tight as any top-notch sitcom, and also the cast. There are some excellent performances all around from some very strong actors. Fans or Mira Sorvino won't get to see a great deal of her, however, as she has a relatively minor supporting role.
The film is effectively a celebration of Barcelona and also of the situations that arise when different cultures meet. This might make it hard for some Americans to warm to but, ironically, that merely underlines the movie's main theme - that the world is bigger than the American continent and infinitely wider in its cultural scope.