Kenneth Branagh seemingly can do anything in both the acting and directing arenas, as he has admirably proven time and again. Be it historical drama or neo-noir, Branagh excels at beautifully detailed films that are both intellectually appealing and emotionally satisfying. If he therefore could have done anything, why he chose to work in The Big Chill genre is anyone's guess, though perhaps, vis a vis this film's title, his own friendships came into play--because this film is a veritable film version of incestuous relationships, some professional, some personal, most of which inform the film.
Dealing with a group of friends who knew each other from a Cambridge performing group circa 1982, the film's real focus is the 10 year reunion of the friends at the vast estate that Peter has just inherited. Jeeves and Wooster fans will be excited to see that Peter is played by Stephen Fry and friend Roger by Hugh Laurie, while Harry Potter fans will be delighted to see several instructors, including Branagh, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton turn up as others in the group. All of the characters are damaged in some way: Laurie and wife Staunton have just lost a child; Thompson can't find a mate; Branagh and his Hollywood television star wife Rita Rudner (who co-wrote the script with her real life husband Martin Bergmann) are having marital difficulties brought on by his uneasiness over their California success.
The problem with the film is that none of the characters are particularly likable, though Fry and Laurie come off best in that regard. Who wants to spend a weekend in the country with a bunch of whining, insufferable boobs, especially when most of them are so beautiful and well-off? Add to that a certain uneveness in tone, as the film veers wildly from slapstick to tugging at the heartstrings, and this is not Branagh's finest directorial moment. I won't post any spoilers here, but the denouement concerning Peter is telegraphed several times during the film and will catch virtually no one by surprise by the end of the movie.
All of that aside, however, there's a lot to like in Peter's Friends. Laurie and Staunton walk off with the acting honors, with Staunton's frenetic worry and Laurie's simmering wounded husband perfectly drawn and wonderfully examined in a couple of gut-wrenching scenes. Rudner is a little mannered, as befits her Jewish American Princess character (and persona), but there's really nothing there beneath the schtick-y surface, which begs the question, what did Branagh's character ever see in her to begin with? He seems one of the lower-key, more relatively normal of the bunch, and that aspect of their relationship is never really explained or explored. Thompson seems to be doing some early riffing on her Professor Trelawney character, with its attendant klutziness and literal lack of foresight. But despite the broadly drawn characters (and at times characterizations), there are enough zingers flying, with some excellent repartee between various couples, to make the going enjoyable if not overly profound.
The film is either hampered or helped, depending on your age and memory, by its ubiquitous pop song soundtrack, featuring hits by such artists as Tears for Fears and Cyndi Lauper, whose tunes are used almost uniformly non-ironically throughout the film, as if someone was pasting a literal soundtrack wallpaper behind the proceedings.
This is a nice looking film and transfer, with an excellent 1.78:1 enhanced image. Good color, saturation and detail with no artifacts make Peter's Friends easy on the eyes.
The standard stereo soundtrack is just fine as well, with good use of separation in both the dialogue and song underscore.
None are offered.
It's hard to hit a Hamlet or Dead Again out of the park every time. This adequate base run by Branagh may not be a classic, but it's worth an evening's rental for its star quality and occasionally bitchy interplay.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet