Tuesday, February 17, 2015

One Chance: Quite endearing, if slightly flawed

One Chance (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for brief profanity and mild sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

[Note: I’ve given up on waiting for this film to be granted wide release in the States; it obviously ain’t gonna happen. The Weinstein Company initially promised us this British import in late 2013, and then delayed it to last spring, and then granted it limited release in October. Apparently, that’s all we’ll get ... and yet there’s also no word yet of home video release, despite its DVD availability across the pond for at least a year now. Such are the idiosyncrasies of U.S. film distribution ... and, regardless, I’m not letting this review go to waste!]

During a courtship that's frequently too cute for words, Paul (James Corden) never misses
an opportunity to serenade Julz (Alexandra Roach) with one of his favorite opera arias.
Some people are blessed and cursed in equal measure, and that’s certainly the case with Britain’s Paul Potts. Although graced with a lovely voice and a childhood fondness for opera and choir singing, these interests made him a frequent target for contemptuous peers in the Bristol-based, former quarry hamlet of Fishponds, where he grew up.

The rather unusual arc of Potts’ subsequent life is the subject of this whimsical, sometimes melancholy biographical drama from David Frankel, who previously charmed us with gentle character-clash comedies such as The Devil Wears Prada and the under-appreciated The Big Year.

Frankel is a good choice for this material; I’m less certain about scripter Justin Zackham, thus far known only for The Bucket List and The Big Wedding, both broad-strokes comedies fronted by A-list casts. One Chance is his first feature-length stab at factual material; while retaining many elements crucial to Potts’ life, Zackham plays fast and loose with other important details, for no apparent reason.

The real Potts has two brothers and a sister, all of whom are MIA in this film. Their father was a bus driver, not a steelworker. Most crucially, Potts wasn’t nearly as socially inept as this film suggests; he was elected the youngest member of the Bristol City Council as a Liberal Democrat in 1996, a position he held for seven years. That far-from-minor detail also remains MIA.

It could be argued that none of this matters, in the telling of a real-life Cinderella story, and that’s true ... to a point. But Potts’ actual experiences are sufficiently compelling to warrant a more accurate account of his ups and downs; heightening his misfit qualities, to make him even more of an underdog, feels like gilding the lily.

Even so, Frankel and Zackham skillfully work our emotions, building us to what should be a joyfully shared triumph ... and then they pull the rug out from under us. I’ve rarely seen a feel-good film so badly miscalculate its finale, employing a hasty voice-over to replace what should have been, at the very least, an ecstatic montage.

It’s an atrocious use of said-bookism: We don’t want to be told what happens during the climax, we want to watch it happen. Good grief, that’s basic Storytelling 1A.


That aside, there’s no denying the teddy bear qualities of James Corden’s starring performance, and the degree to which we hitch our emotional wagon to his mopey, nonconformist horse. It’s impossible to resist his Paul Potts: a good-natured, roly-poly hero who deserves far better than life constantly delivers. We recently saw Corden as Keira Knightley’s best friend in John Carney’s Begin Again, where he very nearly stole the film from his top-billed co-stars.

Following a brief prologue of youthful torment at the hands of little thugs, we catch up with Paul as an adult in the late 1990s, working as the only staff member at a branch of Carphone Warehouse in Port Talbot, Wales. Although technically answering to Braddon Evans (Mackenzie Crook), his frankly daffy boss and best mate, it could be argued that Paul is the mobile phone outlet’s more stable employee.

Paul hasn’t lost his youthful devotion to opera, an affectation that infuriates and embarrasses his gruff, blue-collar father, Roland (Colm Meaney), although his mother Yvonne (Julie Walters) is much more supportive. Paul has his heart set on attending a master class in Venice, which could lead to an instructive session with the great Luciano Pavarotti, but of course the means to finance such an adventure remain beyond him.

On a personal note, Paul is a career nonstarter with women, a sad state of affairs that Braddon hopes to improve with some assistance from an Internet dating service. Paul reluctantly but gamely follows through, leading to a too-captivating-for words first date with Julz (Alexandra Roach). It’s a meet-cute encounter for the ages, certain to be appreciated by romantics who believe in love at first sight.

(And that bit, at least, appears to be an accurate account of how the real-world Paul and Julie-Ann met.)

Emboldened by encouragement from Julz, Paul does manage to get to Italy ... but only after a Port Talbot event that’ll leave you cringing with worried horror. Really, must this poor guy go to such extremes to demonstrate his talent in a public venue?

Once in Venice, we meet this little drama’s final key character: Alessandra (Valeria Bilello, appropriately vibrant and gorgeous), a young Italian singer who also desires that highly delectable private audience with Pavarotti.

Some of the folks reading these words, well versed in the recent history of unexpected talent show champions, already know what eventually happens to Paul. For the benefit of everybody else, I’ll not reveal anything further. Suffice it to say that some things work out, but others don’t ... and then others do, and still others don’t. Poor Paul must be the original guy who couldn’t catch a break; the physical calamities he endured, by themselves, are almost too numerous to be believed (but, again, are mostly accurate).

The core plotline aside — Paul’s driving ambition — our attention also is held by the captivating roster of supporting players, friendly or otherwise. Crook is hilarious as the unapologetically peculiar Braddon, who seems to reside in a world that’s slightly left of center. Zackham feeds Crook a riotous stream of dry one-liners, and Frankel assures that each is delivered with well-timed precision.

Jemima Rooper is equally funny as Braddon’s outlandish girlfriend, Hydrangea, who answers his worshipful, love-struck gaze with withering retorts that don’t faze him in the slightest.

Roach is sweetness personified as Julz, who seems the utterly perfect yin to Paul’s yang. Perhaps even more than we want him to fulfill his lifelong ambition, we root for this relationship to succeed, and can’t bear the slightest threat to that outcome. Nothing could be worse than the crestfallen disappointment that clouds Julz’s face at times, and Roach knows just how to play our emotions.

Walters is feisty and tart-tongued as Yvonne: perhaps the only woman willing to put up with her eternally scowling husband, while giving as good as she gets, although her love for him is equally obvious.

Roland is another in Meaney’s long line of grouchy curmudgeons, but — in his case — familiarity never breeds contempt. Somehow, each of his chronic grumblers feels fresh, armed with different degrees of tough love. Indeed, at one point — difficult to watch — Roland is unrelentingly harsh, reflecting the view of a beaten-down realist who has come to believe that dreams never come true.

Maria Del Monte has a brief but delicious part as Alessandra’s grandmother, and Trystan Gravelle is appropriately nasty as Matthew, the former childhood bully who tormented Paul, and continues to do the same as an adult.

The primary music is deliriously beautiful, particularly the operatic excerpts performed off-camera by the actual Potts, as Corden carefully lip-synchs. That said, the decision to blend the likes of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart with The Village People and New Wave groups such as Super Furry Animals and Dexys Midnight Runners is utterly daft.

The worst offense comes at the end, when Paul’s performance of the aria “Nessun Dorma” cuts to a pop ballad by Taylor Swift. I mean, seriously?

One cannot help suspecting eleventh-hour interference, likely from the notoriously hyper-controlling Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who purchased One Chance for Stateside release via their own company. Sadly, they seem not to have known how to market this little charmer, which may explain why it has been scheduled for release on these shores ever since December 2013, and repeatedly held back. Adding grotesquely inappropriate pop tunes seems like a desperate marketing ploy.

If that’s what it took to bring Potts’ cinematic saga to the States, I suppose we should be grateful. But as delightful as this film is at times, it’s badly damaged by some ill-advised artistic decisions.

Which is a true shame.

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