Cold comfort though it must be to those who suffered through it, Great Britain's Tory-era industrial collapse at least produced two delightful, defiant movie comedies. Mark Herman's Brassed Off! followed a North England mining town's brass band on its swan song. The film wasn't escapist--it was pretty preachy at times, actually--but it wasn't depressing, either. Mixed in with the anger was exhilaration at the music and a bracing gallows humor.
Now comes The Full Monty, about the crackbrained moneymaking scheme of six unemployed Sheffield steelworkers. It, too, is an unlikely blast.
These six tough-looking Brits smirk at us from The Full Monty's poster--it looks like we're being sold some sort of crime movie, a British Reservoir Dogs perhaps. But the caper that these guys are trying to pull off is legal, if wildly ill-advised: They're trying to turn themselves, variously pasty, pudgy, underdeveloped or middle-aged, into male strippers.
The prologue is a (real-life) promotional film, circa the '60s or '70s, extolling the virtues of life in the virtual worker's paradise that is Sheffield. Then the film proper begins, in the empty shell of a closed mill, where Gaz (Robert Carlyle), his friend Dave (Mark Addy) and Gaz's son Nathan (William Snape) are scrounging for scrap steel.
It's a jolting juxtaposition, and having made it, director Peter Cattaneo, in his feature debut, takes off the hair shirt. He's made his point; now it's time to be funny. But, as with Brassed Off!--and perhaps even more skillfully--the comedy may be light, but it isn't fluffy. It arises from real characters with very real problems.
Long on the dole, Gaz has lost the respect of his son, his estranged wife (Emily Woof) and himself. He's an idea man, though. When he observes how well the Chippendale dancers make out performing at the local club, he recognizes a potential payload from the women in town--they still have jobs as secretaries and factory workers.
He persuades the sad, chubby, impotent Dave, along with a suicidal security guard (Steve Huison), a middle-aged black man (Paul Barber) and a well-hung young stud who can't dance (Hugo Speer) to form a strip act with him. The sextet is rounded out by Gaz's enemy-turned-ally Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), a foreman who's just as broke as Gaz, but hasn't yet broken it to his spendthrift wife. Gerald, a ballroom-dance enthusiast, is the troupe's choreographer.
The only problem left--well, actually not the only problem, but the biggest of many wacky problems--is how these nice enough but decidedly un-Herculean fellows can hope to compete with Chippendale-grade beef for the attentions of the ladies. Gaz decides that the answer is to "go the full monty"; that is, to strip completely bare-naked, rather than down to G-strings. He decides this, however, without consulting his colleagues.
Most of the subsequent humor is of the turning-the-gender-tables kind. These men must, for the first time, fret over the difficult task of being physically sexy--an anxiety much more common to women. The film tweaks them with the realization that they're used to being judged first for their personalities, yet they've spent their lives judging women on looks first.
It's just a tweaking that the characters get from Cattaneo and first-time screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, not a skewering. The comedy, though often riotous, is gentle, and the actors are plainly crazy about their roles and each other.
Carlyle, who played the gay lover in Priest and the lethal drunk Begbie in Trainspotting, adds yet another whole, distinctive character to his gallery--he actually makes himself look smaller here than in the earlier roles, as if Gaz had shrunken a bit with failure. He's an intelligent, slyly incorrigible rascal, but with a heart--he knows, albeit usually too late, when he's gone too far, and he knows how to say he's sorry and mean it.
Wilkinson is wonderful as Gerald, whose all-business manner slowly thaws as he begins to like these fellows. Addy, in his first film, mixes so much warmheartedness into the run-down, unhappy Dave that he nearly takes over our sympathies. The secondary roles, though less developed, are no less well-played.
What's remarkable about The Full Monty is that its silly central idea explores so many levels: sexual, economic and social. When, to "You Can Leave Your Hat On," the sextet bares all, the joyous, almost pagan squealing of their female audience sweeps away the comic poignancy of the desperation that drove them to this act. If these guys can still make those women howl, surely they can't be counted out yet.
In their quest to make themselves sex objects, the homely heroes of The Full Monty get help from their audience that female dancers could rarely expect to get from a male crowd--good-natured generosity. In the end, the film becomes a love letter to the kindness of women.
The Full Monty
Directed by Peter Cattaneo.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.