The Tall Guy
directed by Mel Smith
(Working Title Films, 1989)

There are some actors who can get away with playing variations on a single character -- oftentimes themselves -- over and over again. Kevin Costner, for instance, was able to present a convincing John J. Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, but couldn't make the same character work as Robin Hood in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Woody Allen, on the other hand, has made a career of playing various reflections of Woody Allen.

One actor who has done it well is Jeff Goldblum, who approaches many of his roles with the same, vaguely confused, victim-like demeanor -- and damn if it doesn't work.

An excellent example of Goldblum as Goldblum is the underrated 1989 film The Tall Guy. Goldblum plays Dexter King, a semi-talented American actor working the theater circuit in London. When the film begins, he's the straight man in a long-running physical comedy revue starring Ron Anderson (a wonderful Rowan Atkinson). King shares a flat with his nymphomaniacal landlady Carmen (Geraldine James). His friends include a blind man who's allergic to his seeing-eye dog and Cyprus Charlie, a clumsy backstage prop man (Emil Wolk). And Dexter is allergic to, well, basically everything.

That last bit is important. Dexter, after sneezing onto the genitals of Carmen's latest conquest (Don't ask.) decides to tackle the problem pharmaceutically. He overcomes his fear of needles to begin weekly allergy shots once he catches a glimpse of the pretty shot-giving nurse, Kate Lemmon (Emma Thompson, in a marvelous pre-fame performance).

King's efforts to win the eye of Nurse Lemmon are hilarious, and their first-date love scene (Kate doesn't believe in wasting time once she knows she likes someone) is about the funniest I've ever seen.

But the long road to romance between Dexter and Kate is but one piece of The Tall Guy's sterling plot (written by long-time Atkinson collaborator Richard Curtis). Dexter's relationship with funnyman Anderson is another big part of this film, and Atkinson shines as the mean-spirited comedian. (I remain amazed that Atkinson hasn't gotten more Hollywood offers. Pre-Bean, his mainstream appearances are limited to bit parts in films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Hot Shots Part Deux. Of course, Atkinson's BBC series The Black Adder is still available on video and should be seen by anyone who enjoys British humor.)

Small touches include a zany Freudian doctor (Hugh Thomas), particularly his administering of a series of unnecessary vaccines in the most painful way possible, and the sudden music video which marks the change from pre- and post-romance, and pre- and post-employment for Dexter. Nurse Lemmon's bedside manner is perfectly horrid, another source of numerous grins and giggles.

Of course, Dexter -- true to Goldblum's usual victim role -- loses his job with Anderson, and his quest for meaningful work in the London theater world is another delightful part of the film. There are subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at the acting industry throughout, and no one is hit harder than musical theater wunderkind Andrew Lloyd Weber, who is thoroughly mocked via the big stage production Elephant!, a musical version of the Elephant Man story.

The Tall Guy remains one of the funniest films I've ever seen, and it continues to surprise me that so few people have seen or even heard of it. If this one is new to you, too, run as fast as you can to the video store and set aside an evening for non-stop laughter.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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