Three And Out

Three And Out


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

How do you make a comedy about killing yourself? More to the point, how do you make one that works? Gershfield and his writers have set themselves a considerable task in trying to get some laughs from a very sensitive subject and create an effective human drama at the same time. And if in the end it doesn’t really work, you have to applaud them for even trying.

The film opens with a shot of Paul Callow (Crook), an unhappy, unfulfilled budding author working as a driver on the London Underground to pay the bills. When he’s involved in two accidental “person under a train” incidents in quick succession his colleagues inform him of the seldom talked about “three and out” rule.

Copy picture

This basically gives a psychological discharge to anyone suffering three “one-under”s within a month – and pays them off with ten years’ salary. Realising that this offers a way of getting out of London and buying a cottage in the Scottish Highlands to fulfil his dream of a solitary writer’s life, Paul sets about finding suitably suicidal people and offering them a cut of his payoff to “square things with your family and that” before becoming his third “victim”.

Initially, this is played for laughs – people either think he’s mad, or don’t take kindly when he describes them as “looking like you’ve nothing to live for”. Given that Gershfield cut his teeth on TV comedies like Big Train, this segment should provide some sharp, pitch-black fun, but (like a lot of the film) the comedy is never quite as... well, funny as you’d like it to be. A cameo by Anthony Sher as a French gourmet who wants the suicide to be a prelude to a bit of “extreme cooking” wisdom typical of this section – overdone, clichéd and way, way too broad and knockabout.

Finally Paul resorts to hanging around ‘suicide spot’ bridges and it’s there that he meets Tommy (Meaney), a 50-something Irishman fallen on hard times who’s determined to end it all – and is actually none too happy when Paul stops him.

He’s suspicious of the plan, but eventually agrees. Deciding to use the money to find the wife and daughter he abandoned years ago, he spruces himself up, hires a classic car for the trip - and is aghast when Paul insists on coming with him “to protect my investment”.

Their journey veers between scenes of broad farce (Tommy ineptly attempting to steal a wedding ring from the wife of an old enemy who won it from him at cards) and more poignant moments when Paul and Tommy realise that, despite being chalk and cheese in most respects, each is alone and desperate for a way out of their existence.

The trouble is that for this to work the comedy needs to be good enough to get the audience laughing so much that the moments of poignancy hit home all the more. And the film just doesn’t deliver. The burglary scene in particular (pratfalls, swallowed rings and LOTS OF SHOUTING!) seems to be from an entirely different film, one aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator. A fleeting cameo from Kerry Katona as a Scouse ladette (challenging casting or what?) in this section doesn’t add much to the proceedings either.

But eventually Tommy tracks his family down to the Lake District. Wife Rosemary (Imelda Staunton) has become a hairdresser engaged to the local plumber and daughter Frankie (Gemma Arterton) is a feisty, anarchic and beautiful young woman, still the apple of her Dad’s eye but nursing a on bitter hatred of him for abandoning them. The reunion scenes are well-played and poignant but just when the film seems to be settling down into a solid bittersweet drama, the urge to throw in a “hilarious” moment takes over once again. Look, there’s Colm Meaney in a kimono! And Mackenzie Crook face down in a cowpat! The wildly uncertain shifts of tone eventually become just plain wearing. It’s a shame, because Gershfieldme has coaxed a quartet of excellent performances. Staunton takes a passive, somewhat clichéd role and turns Rosemary into a believable human being, furious at her errant husband, completely understanding his self-destructive impulses, but still deeply in love with him. A wordless scene where they relax on the sofa listening to their favourite music is one of the film’s highpoints.

Arterton (the best thing about St Trinian’s and soon to be a Bond girl) is equally impressive. When she falls in love with Paul he can’t believe his luck, but her passion is as much about escaping the narrow confines of her world. The irony of Paul wanting to leave behind London and embrace exactly the kind of life Frankie finds so stifling is subtly explored.

Crook isn’t everybody’s idea of a classic leading man, but he carries his first starring role well; Paul is a sad and somewhat passive character, but he has a good heart and a fierce desire to improve himself, even though this takes the form of reading about life rather than actually embracing it. You can see why Frankie would fall for someone like him.

Meaney’s Tommy is his polar opposite – a bear of a man who has devoured life in chunks and for whom every emotion (including self-hatred) is intense. He takes up Paul’s offer, and returns to London for the big day despite his “benefactor” having second thoughts, because he has the kind of spirit that embraces life and death with equal vigour.

And, to its credit, the film steers clear of a conventional feelgood ending. Without giving too much away, there is tragedy (and one major character reacts to it in a way that I found unconvincing) but the final note is uplifting. Happiness is hard-won, the film seems to say, and it’s not done by finding easy ways out or rejecting life in either the symbolic or literal senses.

If it had simply explored this in a gentle, ironic way the results would have been so much better. But trying to bolt on a knockabout Britcom leaves it caught between two stools. It’s worth a look if you appreciate four top actors giving better performances than the material really deserves, and it has to be said that some of the preview audience I saw it with couldn’t stop laughing. But I’d say: mind the gap between intention and execution, and use caution before boarding.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2008
Share this with others on...
Three And Out packshot
A Tube driver accidentally runs over two people, then hears of the ‘three and out’ rule, which offers a huge financial incentive to find someone suitably suicidal...
Amazon link

Director: Jonathan Gershfield

Writer: Steve Lewis, Tony Owen

Starring: Mackenzie Crook, Colm Meaney, Imelda Staunton, Gemma Arterton

Year: 2008

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Search database: