IS THIS STRIP NECESSARY?

In "The Emperor's New Clothes," what was the Emperor's actual state? Hint: It's the title of Mike Leigh's new film. Naked, a black comedy, is built around a flawless performance by a superb young actor named David Thewlis. Thewlis and several of the other actors are so good, and some of the writing is so strong, that it takes a while to recognize what we're being handed as a theme--modern urban (yawn) alienation.

But the yawns don't set in right away. For well over half of the film, the acting, and the harsh, scabrous humor of Leigh's writing, keep things buoyant. Thewlis plays Johnny, a scruffy young fellow from Manchester who appears on the London doorstep of his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). She's not home, but he's let into the flat by her roomie, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), who takes a shine to him. He has a fling with Sophie, he bickers with Louise when she returns, and then he splits.

For most of the rest of the film, Johnny aimlessly wanders the streets, striking up conversations with strangers, some of whom make him look pretty stable by comparison. This lengthy, episodic section is the best part of Naked.

Johnny encounters, and imposes himself upon, among others, a young Scottish couple quarreling in hilariously dense burrs, a lonely, middle-aged building security guard who lets him come in out of the cold in return for conversation, and an alcoholic, middle-aged woman who offers him sex. He declines, not rudely but not quite politely, either, on the grounds that she reminds him of his Mum.

Thewlis uses a variety of vocal tricks to keep Johnny's company from becoming tiresome. His voice never rises very far above a mild nasal singsong with a tone of lordly, peevish irony, even when he's holding forth on some grand topic, as in the skewed theological lecture he gives the poor night watchman on the essential malevolence of God and the universe.

He gives the impression of knowing that both he and his listeners (including us) are in on the absurd joke that is life and have no choice but to archly play along with it. He's the least condescending of all know-it-alls--he truly wants to bring people around to his point of view. Some of the other actors, notably Sharp, pick up on this rhythm and use it back at him, creating a fine, riffing, ensemble feel in many scenes. In this way, Johnny's manner remains tart rather than simply sour.

The movie eventually goes sour, however, and not long after that, it goes dull. Leigh has a reputation as a gritty, naturalistic, social chronicler, and perhaps in some of his acclaimed earlier films this was justified--I must plead a negligent (for a critic) ignorance of Leigh's work. But Naked is probably his most highly touted film so far, and to a considerable extent, this has been on the basis of its "realism." But the movie, at its best, has more the quality of a series of comic-revue sketches than one of a realistic slice of life.

Of course, there's nothing in the world wrong with good revue-sketch comedy, and Naked's is often very good indeed. But late in the film, Leigh attempts to shift the tone toward grimy reality--when Johnny returns, under unpleasant circumstances, to Louise and Sophie's flat--and the movie is left with no more options than its antihero. It grinds on and on, as Leigh looks for a way to resolve the story that won't seem trite.

At last he gives up, and the movie just ends. In the final few scenes, Leigh tries to reintroduce broad comedy, in the character of a young nurse (Claire Skinner) who's so outraged that she can't finish a sentence. It's a pretty funny routine, but by then we're so exhausted that we can't appreciate it.

Thewlis' Johnny, the best angry young Brit since Jimmy in Look Back in Anger (and Jimmy wasn't funny), made Naked worth seeing for me. But to suggest that it's an important social document seems exaggerated. Within a year, I've seen two other British films that were realized by roughly the same method for which Leigh is famous--a script drawn up through improvisational rehearsals with the cast. One was Ken Loach's stirring Riff-Raff, a vision of the indigent day laborers on a North London construction site that was, both in humanity and in dramatic subtlety, worthy of Gorky. The other was Bad Behaviour, Les Blair's charming, curiously neglected portrait of the educated middle class.

Neither of these directors is as critically admired as Leigh. But on the basis of Naked, excellent though the best of it is, Leigh doesn't strike me as especially the superior of either.

 
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