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Accidents Will Happen, Even When Love Is by Design

Submarine (2011)

Dean Rogers/The Weinstein Company

Oliver Tate — the 15-year-old protagonist played by Craig Roberts in Richard Ayoade’s feature-length directorial debut “Submarine” — expresses one of his desires to the audience early on in the film through voice-over narration: “I suppose it’s a bit of an affectation, but I often wish there was a film crew following my every move.” It’s a (sort of) clever gag since Mr. Ayoade is doing just that during the film’s 97-minute running time, and it’s also a standard representation of the type of comedy to follow: quirky, droll, almost mature, supposedly original. But while this kind of comedic bildungsroman has been repeatedly overdone, what saves “Submarine” from becoming the ugly sister to “Napoleon Dynamite” is its smart and strongly developed central character.

Oliver (superbly sketched by Mr. Roberts) is a Welsh mixture of Holden Caulfield and Friedrich Nietzsche. He uses an intellectually witty exterior to hide his teenage angst. Mostly a loner, Oliver wants what we all want: a few friends, a happy home life and sex. At school, Oliver’s secret crush on his feisty classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) slowly turns into a serious-enough sexual and emotional relationship.

Contrast that to Oliver’s melancholy home life, where his parents sleepwalk through their deteriorating marriage. His father (Noah Taylor) is a depressed marine biologist. His stay-at-home mother (Sally Hawkins) has turned her attention to a former lover named Graham (Paddy Considine), whose defining characteristic is a large mullet. Oliver attempts to fix his parents’ marital problems while balancing his own romantic life. Various dry comedic high jinks ensue.

Here, the shaping of the plot has a certain raw quality to it that’s either cool or unseasoned depending on the scene. Based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel of the same title, Mr. Ayoade’s screenplay is bound up with so much tongue-in-cheek humor, it is designed to give you a canker sore by the film’s conclusion. Most of the actors’ performances are not bad, but they are clogged up by chunks of unfunny gags. Some of the comedic high jinks work and are darkly funny, especially in one scene where Oliver gets caught forging a note from his father discussing his parents’ sexual activities. Other set pieces miss the mark badly, largely because of an over-reliance on repeatedly dry narration.

Visually, the film takes risks. Unfortunately, these are the wrong kind of risks. Cheesy stylistic choices — such as a kaleidoscope sequence when Oliver rides a bike or a grainy vintage effect in a montage — are distracting and unnecessary. These sequences gives the impression that Mr. Ayoade was trying to keep the film churning along without too many slow moments. But constantly flexing his stylistic muscles takes away from the film’s greatest strength: its even-handed sincerity.

There are a few scenes near the end of the film between Oliver and his father that exemplify all-around wonderful filmmaking. These bits are simple but make the dramatic weight of the entire film worthwhile. Messrs. Roberts and Taylor serve up the film’s best performances; and in these scenes, the two feed off of each other well. It is also not an accident that the audience gets to see these two characters develop the most. In one example, they sit at the dinner table having soup, quietly discussing depression and its effect on their lives. And in this moment, it strikes you that beneath the hit-or-miss gags and the flashy filmmaking tricks, there is a genuine story that has been drowned out. Maybe if the sincerity is able to flourish, “Submarine” could have been a good film instead of just an average one.


Opens on March 18 in Britain and on June 3 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Richard Ayoade, based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne; director of photography, Erik Alexander Wilson; edited by Nick Fenton and Chris Dickens; music by Andrew Hewitt, with songs by Alex Turner; production design by Gary Williamson; costumes by Charlotte Walter; produced by Mark Herbert, Andy Stebbing and Mary Burke; released by Optimum Releasing (Britain) and the Weinstein Company (United States). Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Craig Roberts (Oliver Tate), Yasmin Paige (Jordana Bevan), Sally Hawkins (Jill Tate), Paddy Considine (Graham Purvis) and Noah Taylor (Lloyd Tate).


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