I know only a little of the "St. Trinian's" UK film series or the Ronald Searle cartoons that inspired it, but I can sure know excellent casting when I see it, and this 2007 franchise reboot has it in spades: Rupert Everett in Alistair Sim's old double role as both the school headmistress and her oily brother; Colin Firth as an uptight government official; future Bond girl Gemma Arterton as the girls' saucy ringleader; Toby Jones as one of those weird little characters only Toby Jones can play; Stephen Fry as the quip-tastic host of a quiz show; and Russell Brand, whom I never really liked yet seems born to play greasy spiv Flash Harry.
But oh, how the movie squanders such a cast. The actors are left grasping for laughs as the script tries to figure out just what it wants to be. Devilishly crude? Kid-friendly? The screenplay, credited to four writers, aims for both, opting to take the franchise's subversive naughtiness and pepper it with tween-comedy plotlines, which is just about as sloppy and as unappealing as it sounds.
The girls no longer smoke in this updated "St. Trinian's," but other vices remain. The younger students engage in larceny, gambling rings, vandalism, and general mayhem - the sort of cute cartoonishness that makes the movie seem like countless other schools-gone-wild kids' stories. The script even includes a "Mean Girls"-esque exaggeration of cliques, and the plot leads toward a caper adventure in which the students attempt to burgle Vermeer's most famous painting; on this level, there's not much separating it from your average Nickelodeon movie. (Well, I doubt Nickelodeon would approve of the bootlegging scenes, but it's all so tongue in cheek that it barely counts as inappropriate.)
The older girls, meanwhile, are sexually adventurous, often wickedly so; three "Posh Totties" (as the clique is called) prance around in lingerie and seduce their foes, placing things somewhere between the risqué-for-its-time Ealing originals and the T&A jigglefest of the misguided 1980 revival "The Wildcats of St. Trinian's." Arterton, as head girl Kelly Jones, vamps it up, while Talulah Riley, playing new girl Annabelle, gets a mid-movie makeover that turns her from average Jane to glammy vixen.
But really, it's not the sexual angle of the film that's a problem - it's flat ideas like the makeover scene, which pulls the story deep into the pits of lazy formula. (Never mind that Riley's supermodel looks didn't really require sprucing up with thick makeup and a perm, and never mind that the movie was doing just fine without obsessing over its heroine's looks.) The screenplay is constantly bogged down by weak jokes, cheap pop culture references, and a delusion that anything Everett does in drag will be funny just because he's in drag.
He and Firth ham it up, and plenty. I'm sure they had a blast on the set, playing the fools and giggling over their shared love scenes. (The film balks at showing them kiss, though, a reluctance that reveals just how safe the film is trying to play its "risky" laughs.) Firth especially seems to be enjoying poking fun at his own image, what with all the "Pride and Prejudice" jokes that abound. Which would be clever, except such jokes mostly involve things like a dog named "Mr. Darcy" humping Firth's leg, har har.
The leg humping is everywhere, as are a good number of too-familiar plot turns and tired one-liners, so it's quite a relief when the movie actually bothers to deliver something fresh, most notably an animated sequence that uses Searle's cartoon style to visualize the girls' heist plans. An early field hockey match delivers some nasty (in the good sense) slapstick, and twins Cloe and Holly Mackie earn smiles as wicked ten-year-old demolition experts; in both cases, we can see the kind of black comedy deviousness co-directors Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson were trying to achieve. Meanwhile, Stephen Fry, just by being Stephen Fry, remains a delight.
But we must also slog through jokes about how the dumb girls think "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is a portrait of Scarlett Johanson, or how Firth's character gets stuck with his pants down in a girls' changing room, or how the headmistress thinks she looks "like a queen," tee hee.
When it's not pushing jokes like that down your throat, it's going for all-out screeching - this is the sort of movie that mistakes cranked-up pop songs for energy and screaming girls as mischief. Loud? Heavens, yes. Clever? All too rarely.
Originally released in the UK in December 2007 (with - oh, dear - a sequel that opened in December 2009), "St. Trinian's" received a rather limited Stateside release late last year, and now arrives on DVD courtesy Sony Home Entertainment.
Video & Audio
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is colorful and crisp, as is fitting this sort of bouncy comedy. Nothing fancy, just decent detail all around.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does a fine job handling all the noise. The grating pop music and the screeching girls come through quite well without overdoing it, while quieter moments never feel too soft by comparison. Again, nothing fancy, just as good as you'd expect. Optional English and English SDH subtitles are provided.
"St. Trinian's: The Official School Diary" (9:56; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) is a loud, over-edited EPK making-of, filled with fluffy cast and crew interviews. Rupert Everett's drag scenes were kooky! Shooting on location is a hoot!
There's not much to the outtake reel (5:46; 1.85:1 anamorphic), just a collection of flubbed lines and hard-to-get shots being hard to get.
What's labeled as "Girls Aloud - St. Trinian's Chant" (4:35; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) is a fairly miserable music video loaded with film clips.
Nineteen deleted scenes (18:03 total; 1.85:1 anamorphic) are mostly tiny bits of filler and iffy jokes, nothing special (and nothing funny), all obviously trimmed for time.
A batch of previews for other Sony titles rounds out the set. A few of these previews play as the disc loads.
For reasons unknown, "St. Trinian's" did quite well at the UK box office. Across the pond, it's barely been noticed. You should keep it that way. Skip It.