I'll always have fond memories of this movie. I first saw it at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, just 3 days after 9/11. You won't find a much tougher crowd for a comedic movie to premiere to than the one assembled for this particular screening, but such is the power of this film's dark humor that it was able to evoke convulsive laughter even from an audience this somber.
Danny Boyle, who soared with the British films SHALLOW GRAVE and TRAINSPOTTING, then fell on his face with the Hollywood duds A LIFE LESS ORDINARY and THE BEACH, got back in form with this effort, reborn of the freedom that digital technology affords today's daring (and invariably under-financed) filmmakers. He's obviously fascinated with the limitless possibilities for camera placement that the technology affords, embedding miniature cameras all over the sets to permit individual scenes to be viewed from a rapid-fire succession of perspectives. His editing and music skills, combined with stellar camerawork by noted dogme cameraman Anthony Dodd Mantle, results in a raw, exciting new `dogme-MTV' type of look ... a look that Boyle put to good use in his subsequent hit, 28 DAYS LATER.
But `look' alone cannot make a movie. You still need a script to work with, and Boyle is blessed here with an outstanding one from Jim Cartwright. The story is nothing less than a bold and brilliant comedic re-conceptualization of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN for the digital age. And unlike Miller, Cartwright doesn't play coy with what the salesman is actually peddling -- you know right from the start that it's vacuum cleaners.
The `surrogate' character in this film is a likeable young slacker named Pete (Michael Begley) who loves dance music and has some mixing talent, but hasn't been able to carve out any kind of career in the music biz. His girlfriend has to perform strip-o-grams in order for them to make ends meet, and they both want out of this situation in the worst way. The girlfriend's plight gets especially humiliating one night when she performs at a retirement party for a vacuum cleaner salesman, and on a suggestion, Pete decides to pursue a career in this profession as a way out for both of them.
Enter the most blazing, mesmerizing, maniacal lead performance by an actor in many a moon. Pete is made an apprentice to star salesman Tommy Rag, played with incredible over-the-top intensity by veteran Timothy Spall. If there was an ABSOLUTE `best actor' award for the BEST performance, period, in a given year, Spall would have been my hands-down choice for 2001. He makes EVERY ruthless salesman in movie history (Kurt Russell in USED CARS, the gang from THE BOILER ROOM, etc.) look strictly `soft sell' by comparison. This is truly a performance for the ages ... ONE THAT NOBODY WITH A SALES JOB SHOULD MISS!
You may think that you've seen the `rookie paired with vet' thing done to death in the movies, both in dramatic and comedic contexts, but I can assure you that you've never seen anything even close to the `eye or the hurricane' variant that Boyle has come up with here. What he's managed to pack into little more than an hour's running time is astounding ... a fully realized comic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions that manages to be relentlessly and mercilessly funny.