Review: “Burke & Hare”


1. The opening title card of "Burke & Hare" proudly proclaims "This is a true story, except for the parts that are not." Oy. That gives you a pretty good idea of what you're in for, right there, a "dark comedy" with the comedic instincts of the lounge lizard in the corner of the room who says things like, "I'd like to Lady HER Gaga, knowwhutimean?" (I do not know if this type actually says this. It just sorta sounds right.) "Burke & Hare" tells a macabre story that is quite funny, if handled correctly. But this is a movie that won't stop nudging you in the ribs.

2. It is based on a true story, though, and a good one. William Burke and William Hare were a couple of Irish immigrant con men in mid-19th century who found themselves in Scotland at the very moment the Scottish Enlightenment was happening. New advancements in medical research required a steady supply of dead bodies for doctors to open up and see what's inside, and with the field so competitive, the demand for fresh corpses was overwhelming. So, Burke and Hare, always on the lookout for a quick buck (and tiring of the laborious, risky job of grave robbing), realize the best way to make money is to start murdering people and selling the bodies. All in all, they killed 17 people, a solid number for the 19th Century. And not bad for ours, all told.

3. Director John Landis -- the '80s wunderkind who hasn't made a movie in 13 years -- decides to play this as farce, which isn't the worst decision: The idea of two incompetent con men ineptly killing people and trying to avoid the almost-equally-inept authorities has potential, particularly when you cast Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis to play them. Problem is, Landis plays everything way too broadly. It's one thing to embrace the inherent comedy of two nincompoops trying to stuff a rigor mortis-wracked body into a beer barrel. It is another to have them drop the barrel and chase the barrel down a hill for 15 seconds, with "wacky" exaggerated running styles. Landis might have been out of the game for too long; his sense of comic timing is all off. He's become the type of director who plays Handel's "Messiah" when Pegg sees a beautiful woman for the first time. It's as if Landis told his actors to overdo everything as if because it's a period piece, the audience won't know it's supposed to laugh. I think there are three spit-takes in this movie.

4. One advantage Landis brings is a casting eye that reaches farther back than the most recent "Scream" reboot. I'm not sure why Landis is the only person who realizes that Tim Curry isn't just still alive but readily available to be in movies, but I'm sure glad he brought him back anyway; Curry brings considerable ill will with him simply by showing up. (And of course that Cheshire, the-minute-you-turn-your-back-I'm-going-be-buggering-at-least-three-people-in-this-room smile.) Christopher Lee shows up as well in a bit part, and Tom Wilkinson, slumming but enjoying himself anyway, has a supporting role as Curry's conniving rival, the guy who encourages Burke and Hare to keep bringing him bodies, no matter the cost. This is still the sort of lazily plotted film that decides to resolve the plot threads, such as they are, by staging a Doctoring Competition, but if it's between Curry and Wilkinson, I'll keep watching nonetheless.

5. Still: A lot of this feels like younger actors -- Pegg, a criminally underserved Isla Fisher -- trying to entertain the out-of-date comedic stylings of an older man; Pegg, in particularly, doesn't seem to be sure how whether it's supposed to be playing this straight or making fart jokes in Chauncerian cadence. (He ends up doing both, and neither.) Andy Serkis, making a rare appearance sans mo-cap, hints at the right tone, far more sinister and unhinged than Pegg and Landis are willing to let the film be. This is a movie you have to nail exactly perfect for it to work; for the broad farce to work, you must let it unfold in a real, believable place, or at least let the film go legitimately dark when it needs to, rather than Cartoonishly Splurting Arteries Dark. (Again: The constant rib nudging.) Landis is too out of practice. I'm not sure 1981 Landis would have nailed it, but I know 2011 Landis doesn't.

Grade: C