Oh, What Lovely Lunacy


As luck would have it, this has become the summer of satire, thanks to "The Truman Show" and "Bulworth," and now "The Mouse That Roaarrred," LACMA's 14-film salute to Britain's biting lunacy, which starts Friday and runs through July 4.

From "The Mouse That Roared" (1959), which doesn't hold up very well, to "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), which does (both screening Friday), the series proves what a good run it was while it lasted, and points up what a dry spell it's been in the '90s.

Nothing was spared, naturally, in these films' blistering attacks on postwar England's declining status as an industrial power: Religion, politics, class, authority, love, sex, war, marriage and materialism are all fair game. In fact, you could define this brand of satire as a cross between the irreverent Ealing comedies of the '40s and '50s and the lacerating angry young man dramas of the '60s, all wrapped within a decidedly literate framework.

Taken as a whole, these films were like a collision of the past, present and future. And while it may have been fun to be young or pretend to be young, in the end, there were few happy survivors. Just look at the difference between "Tom Jones" (screening Saturday) and "Brazil" (screening July 3): idealistic rebellion vs. apocalyptic doom.

Despite the title of the series, the real breakthrough was "Tom Jones," the enormously successful best picture Oscar winner of 1964. This hip and bawdy retro farce came along at just the right time.

Its 18th century critique of the class system fit right in with the swinging '60s, free love and civil rights. Its New Wave-influenced cutting and zooming and more archaic devices gave it just the right tension. Plus Albert Finney's naughty but gallant antihero had something for everyone.

It's as funny as ever, and further proof that period pieces don't date nearly as much as contemporary trendsetters. Happily, the version being screened is the original and not director Tony Richardson's shorter, more timid cut from the late '80s.

By contrast, Richardson's "The Loved One" (1965, screening June 19) was never as subversive as its supporters claimed. Despite some marvelous performances by John Gielgud as a melancholy painter, Rod Steiger as an artistic mortician and Liberace as his slick colleague, this film version of the Evelyn Waugh novel morbidly meanders like a lost zombie. How could it be otherwise with the miscast Robert Morse as its morose center of attention? Yet there's no denying a certain fascination for anachronistic expatriates out of touch in a world of such crass commercialism.

"A Severed Head" (1971, screening June 20) serves as a much more subversive success. This little-known gem has Ian Holm, Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough and Claire Bloom playing a sophisticated game of mate swapping. But, as someone puts it, their forced familiarity with one another becomes awkwardly incestuous, particularly the way they constantly invade one another's homes and privacy.

While it's no surprise how good Remick, Attenborough and Bloom are in their selfish, supercilious and sly roles, Holm is a bit of a revelation. His repressed wine merchant has all the quiet intensity we've come to admire in his later work, but his eventual outburst of amoral affirmation is an unexpected joy to behold.

Speaking of Attenborough, his "Oh! What a Lovely War" (1969, also screening June 20) still seems bold nearly 30 years later. This loony satire treats World War I as a music hall revue, full of singing and dancing, droll humor and bright colors--and, yes, even a grand illusion on the field of battle. It's the ultimate backdrop for condemning Europe as a dysfunctional family.

Like war itself, the film is erratic and goes on way too long. But it's a unique movie that may find greater appreciation today than in its own time.

"The Knack, and How to Get It" (1965, screening Saturday) has never stopped being appreciated for its charming delights. Director Richard Lester, fresh from his two Beatle films, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!," returns to London not only in full swing but with more visual high jinks. And nothing could be finer than watching Michael Crawford's boyish geometry teacher caught in spatial splendor with the pretty Rita Tushingham.

Of course, Dudley Moore also wants the knack, but all he gets is disillusionment from suave devil Peter Cook in "Bedazzled" (1967, screening June 26). This colorful Faustian mockery of religion and lust boasts the duo at its most hilarious. It's uneven yet still very witty.

Christianity fares even worse in "The Life of Brian," the wicked Monty Python triumph (1979, also screening June 26). But the troupe's real target here is faith, isn't it? Blind faith. What this improbable messiah longs for is the free will that everyone else either abuses or takes for granted.

Although Brian winds up crucified for his wish, at least the "Bright Side of Life" finale leaves 'em laughing. (That's more than you can say for the nightmarish ending of "Brazil" by Python alumnus Terry Gilliam.)

But in its own darkly perverse way, the same can be said for "A Clockwork Orange," Stanley Kubrick's futuristic horror show (1971, screening July 4). Hugely influential, the film still works like a trance with its manipulative technique and Malcolm McDowell's seductive performance as the ultra-violent yet charming Alex.

However, its glorification of violence in the name of free will remains morally dubious.


"The Mouse That Roaarrred: British Satire Since Tom Jones," L.A. County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Fridays and Saturdays through July 4. 7:30 p.m. $4-$6. (213) 857-6010.

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