'Keeping Mum'

It would be wonderful to report that the British farce with Maggie Smith as a sweetly homicidal housekeeper and Rowan Atkinson as a bumbling vicar was the second coming of England's Ealing Studios, which produced the hilariously impolite murder comedies "The Ladykillers" and "Kind Hearts and Coronets." "Keeping Mum," however, is a specimen for the morgue.

The naughty idea is that the dysfunctional Goodfellow family in the parish of Little Wallop — unhappy wife/mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), oblivious father (Atkinson), promiscuous daughter (Tamsin Egerton) and bully-magnet son (Toby Parkes) — are going to see their lives change once Smith brings her malevolent Mary Poppins act to town. But unless your idea of side-splitting yuks is the killing of a yapping pooch, or Patrick Swayze (as Thomas' golf instructor paramour) saying or doing anything, you should stay away from director/co-screenwriter Niall Johnson's stale tea cake of a movie. (The other writer is Pulitzer winner Richard Russo.)

The tamping down of Smith's mischievous charms to overemphasize boring feel-goodness is one thing. But how does one give a gifted physical comedian such as Atkinson a bit in which he's the worst goalie in the world and get no laughs? Or conversely, have the rubbery-faced actor quote from the Song of Solomon as foreplay for rekindling romance with his wife — "let thy breasts be as clusters on the vine" and all that — and expect it to be serious? Where Ealing comedies used to have full command of irony, "Keeping Mum" is weirdly clueless.

'Keeping Mum'

MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content and nudity

A ThinkFilm release. Director Niall Johnson. Screenplay Richard Russo, Johnson. Original story Johnson. Producers Julia Palau, Matthew Payne. Director of photography Gavin Finney. Editor Robin Sales. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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