Anybody who's seen interviews with "Withnail & I" star Richard E. Grant or read the actor's memoir "With Nails" knows Grant to be a spectacular storyteller, urbane and witty. Somehow, those narrative instincts fail Grant on "Wah-Wah," his largely autobiographical writing-directing debut. Although it's clearly a personal story, "Wah-Wah" proves as formulaic and meandering as its satirical targets are bloated and obvious.
It's 1969 and British rule over Swaziland is about to come to an end. That decline of the Empire is wreaking havoc on young Ralph (Zachary Fox), because his father (Gabriel Byrne), an education minister, has become a drunk, and his mother (Miranda Richardson) is carrying on an affair so brazen that she has sex with her lover while Ralph is supposedly asleep in the back seat. Is it any wonder that Ralph is a nervous bundle of tics. After a tenure in boarding school (long enough to become Nicholas Hoult), Ralph returns and discovers that his father has taken up with an American air hostess (Emily Watson), who mocks the occupying Brits for their affectations, their airs and for a cutesy manner of speech she dubs a bunch of "wah-wah."
Contrary to the misleading trailer, "Wah-Wah" isn't a story about wacky Brits in Africa. Grant is attempting to tackle his relationship with his father, but he can't find a way to structure his dad's descent. Thus large portions of the film become alternating scenes of violent alcoholic behavior (countless glasses are smashed against walls) followed by insincere reconciliation, a pattern that's likely true to life, but which also renders "Wah-Wah" identical to countless similar sagas. Wedged in amidst the boorish abuse is a coming-of-age-story that also falls flat because of a confusing time frame -- the staging of an amateur production of "Camelot" seems to span decades and yield minimal mirth -- and a variety of characters who can't emerge as anything more than composites -- Ralph's generic love interest and generic best friend couldn't be less interesting.
The characters that stand out are largely vivid because of how broadly Grant has allowed Byrne and particularly Richardson to perform. These are meaty parts, but I never understood if the overacting was meant to reflect the way a child would remember his parents' fights, or if the actors just felt like shouting. The fact that each outburst is amplified by Patrick Doyle's overblown score didn't help. I felt more warmth for Watson, who initially seems like an odd choice as the American outsider, but eventually won me over.
With most of his main characters shrieking and miserable much of the time, Grant generates much of his attempted humor by superficially lampooning the displaced aristocracy as snooty buffoons. There's supposed to be an implication that the distance from home has caused these colonials to become even more prone to adultery and ego, but Grant mostly conveys that impression in lines of dialogue and never really fits any of these people into their environment. While "Wah-Wah" was filmed on location in Swaziland, nothing about the terrain or its relationship to the story becomes memorable.