September 27, 2002

Under the Radar

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Before Rowan Atkinson, before Ab Fab, before the Python boys, there were Pete & Dud and they were funny. Peter Cook (best known as the Important Clergyman in The Princess Bride) and Dudley Moore (a very drunk playboy in Arthur) made six movies together over the space of about fifteen years. They started out together at Cambridge (and the benefits of that classical education are apparent in everything they ever did) doing Beyond the Fringe; which became the template for every British comedy that followed. Their best effort, however, is the Stanley Donen helmed flick Bedazzled.

Cook and Moore took several of the best known dramatic conventions and wove them into a strangely affecting tale of short order cook (and sad bastard) Stanley Moon (Moore) and his failed quest for waitress Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Born). Stanley loves Margaret to such distraction that he makes an unwise deal with George Spiggot (Cook), a club owner licensed to buy and sell spirits. Stanley gets seven wishes, seven chances to live his dream, in exchange for his immortal soul. This, as George tells him, is a standard contract. Needless to say, every attempt Stanley makes to create the perfect life for himself is foiled by George until he finally ends as a silent nun jumping on a trampoline. What makes it unbearable is that Stanley is also afraid of heights. What we have here is a retelling of the Faust tale as it might occur to very smart people with great senses of humor contemplating it while very drunk. What makes the film more than a self-indulgent parody is its uniquely British ability to treat the most absurd events with endless amounts of stubborn logic. What turns it into a twisted buddy picture is the imitable chemistry and writing of Cook and Moore.

I’m almost sure that there’s an unwritten contract somewhere, detailing the exact trade-offs for hero and villain. It reads something like this: In return for ultimately losing to an underwritten pretty boy with an overabundance of angst, the villain is entitled to have more fun, a better wardrobe, skip the epiphany scene, drink and smoke, be played by a better actor with a cooler accent and have a monopoly on all irony, cynicism and insults. That’s certainly the case here, as George, played with a cunning intelligence by Peter Cook (having far too much fun), neatly steals scenes from earnest Stanley. Even if Cook hadn’t written the screen play, his character likely would have walked away with the picture because ever since 1165 when Milton wrote Paradise Lost the devil has always gotten the best lines. Cook is the devil (incarnate, as he says), in case you hadn’t guessed, but prefers to go by George as Lucifer “sounds a bit poofy to me.”

That kind of unexpected but utterly welcome irreverence is present in every sequence of the film, especially the conversations George and Stanley have between wishes. The best scene is easily the one where George climbs up on a box and succinctly demonstrates that it’s a lot better to be adored than to do the adoring. The only scared cow not turned into high quality hamburger is Stanley’s affection for his dream girl. By making the object of his affections an unattractive lower class girl with a voice Lina Lamot would envy, the film elevates Stanley’s love to ridiculous chivalric heights. Instead of mocking him the film takes him at his overwrought word and makes him an object of sympathy. He’s not as dumb as he looks, as George notes when Stanley says that while people may have called Galileo and Gandhi loonies they also “said it of a lot of loonies.”

Pete & Dud have imagined this universe down the hall from ours as one complete with its own rules and everyday events. So it only makes sense that the prince of darkness spends his free time ripping the last page out of Agatha Christie mysteries ( a more diabolical act I cannot conceive) and that he can’t get any good sins to work these days; must be the wages (the film is littered with these clever throwaway references). The most fully realized occupant of their world is George. He is not an archetype or a creature of myth. Cook plays him as almost frighteningly well adjusted. He’s not consumed with rage or longing for heaven or self-doubt. He’s constitutionally required to “provide the evil” in the universe. It’s his responsibility to wreak havoc and lie, cheat, and otherwise inconvenience people. He has a wonderful time doing it and he’s good at it. Cook makes the best choice possible for this character: he plays him with utter glee. Keep your sympathy for the devil; he’s doing just fine without it. But see the movie anyway. As George says: It’s for your own good.

Archived article by Erica Stein