Almost Heaven is an uninspired romantic comedy that is mildly amusing but wastes its obviously talented cast on a weak story and underwritten humor. The film's flaws outweigh its high production value and beautiful look, to deliver a tepid effort that fails to consistently entertain.
Donal Logue stars as Mark Brady, a washed up, alcoholic television director who is given one last chance to redeem himself, a job directing an episode of International Fishing Adventures with Taya in Scotland. Unfortunately, he has to lay off the liquor for the duration (which requires a running gag of frequent urine tests) and his ex-wife is the eponymous Taya of the show. Mark and Taya (Joely Collins) do not get along well, and have a longstanding conflict about selling the house that Mark still lives in. Soon enough, conflicts with Taya drive him back to drink, forcing him to secure clean urine samples from Georgina (Georgina Hegedos) the Hungarian maid at the hotel he is staying in.
There are a lot of colorful characters in the small village where Mark is staying. There are the town's sexually aggressive PR consultant Hilary (Julie Cox) and the sexually aggressive daughter of the local bartender Anabella (Eilidh MacDonald). The alcoholic bartender Bert (Tom Conti) also serves as the local advice giver and sage. The film shoot's ghillie (the local term for fishing guide) is Teapot Ted (Christopher Fairbank), a cranky old codger and fellow alcoholic. In fact, almost every major character is suffering from alcoholism in some degree or other. Except, of course, for Nicki (Kirsty Mitchell) the only female ghillie on the river, single mother, social outcast for those reasons, and obvious romantic interest for Mark.
Naturally, Mark and Nicki dislike each other when they first meet, and then, in defiance of all logic considering Mark's constant drinking, lying and boorish behavior, they begin to have feelings for each other. The romantic storyline is the biggest problem with Almost Heaven, along with the paucity of real humor. It simply isn't believable that these two will fall in love. The love story is too facile, smoothing over or ignoring circumstances that would permanently forestall a romantic relationship between normal people. These challenges are not so much met head on as effortlessly danced around. (For example, a sexual dalliance with another woman and subsequent lies about the same are quickly forgotten after a day of picnicking and taking goofy photographs with Nicki and her daughter.) Another incident that defies believability is the emotional climax of the film, when Mark nearly dies... from falling in the river. Not only is the fall ham fistedly telegraphed well in advance, but it is played as a horrible and life threatening event, even though Mark falls from a small rock right next to the river into at most six or seven feet of water. He doesn't hit his head on a rock. It has not been previously established that he cannot swim or has tubes in his ears, so why the outrageous reactions and dramatic music? He is in the water for less than a minute, but for some reason has to be rushed to the hospital. The entire scene confounds logic, and leaves the viewer wondering what all the fuss is about.
The other big problem is the tone deaf attempt at humor. Almost Heaven plays like a romantic comedy with strong dramatic elements. The performances are all competent, but restrained. The character of Mark particularly, however, needed to be unrestrained, and Donal Logue plays everything so low key that what could have been the source of frenetic laughs instead becomes merely mildly amusing. The dialogue is tremendously underwritten as well, and most of the attempts at funny lines are one or two beats off, making the intervals between laughs long and the payoffs anemic. Tom Conti is the most enjoyable one to watch, as his performance as the boozed up barkeep is pitch perfect. If he had been given memorable dialogue, it would have been outstanding. As it is, none of the cast are used to anywhere near the limit of their considerable potential.
On the positive side, the film looks great. The rolling countryside and quaint hotels of Scotland combined with the majestic rivers of Canada give the film a gorgeous backdrop on which to play itself out. The production values are high. The camera work is smooth. The image is bright and clear. But none of these things can overcome the clunky dialogue, the ineffective attempts at humor, and the utter ridiculousness of much of what happens. This is, at best, a rental for those with low expectations.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks good. The colors are bright and clear, the image is crisp and there is good contrast at night. The beautiful countryside of Scotland and Canada are given a lush presentation.
The sound is presented in Dolby 2 channel and does the job required for the film. Dialogue is always clearly audible. One issue is that, during the commentary track, the film dialogue is a bit too loud and will occasionally make it difficult to understand what director Shel Piercy is saying. Subtitles are available in English only, and there is no alternate language track.
There are a few extras on the Almost Heaven disc, but nothing that greatly adds to the experience. They are:
This is a standard trailer that tells essentially the entire plot of the film.
Making of Featurette
The making of clocks in at 12:30 and features interviews with director Shel Piercy and most of the main cast talking about how wonderful everyone was to work with. Also there are some stories on the origin of the idea for the film, namely that Mr. Piercy once directed an episode of a fishing show in Scotland during which no fish were caught. This is mostly fluff.
Deleted Scenes with Commentary Track
A little over fourteen minutes of deleted scenes, most of which were cut for time or clarity, or simply because they were not needed. There is also an alternate intro scene with quite a bit of nudity that seems a little too graphic to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. Nothing much to see in this extra.
Commentary Track with Director Shel Piercy
This is the most substantial extra on the disc, but is only fitfully interesting. Shel Piercy talks a lot about what he was trying to do in particular scenes, editing decisions, shooting challenges and other trivia, but never succeeds in being entertaining or compelling. The commentary is not interesting in its own right and adds little to nothing to the experience of the film.
Almost Heaven has great potential, but fails to live up to it in almost every way. It has great locations, a talented and attractive cast, a genuinely humorous concept and high quality craftsmen behind the camera. But none of that can make up for the weak script, clichéd, hard to believe love story and failed humor. The film is at best mildly entertaining, but don't expect much.