Bawdy English black comedy. Acorn Media has released Dirty Tricks, a two-part murder mystery farce based on the novel by Michael Dibdin and starring Doc Martin's Martin Clunes, that aired on U.K. television back in 2000. Fast-moving and nasty fun as only the British can do, Dirty Tricks is just the sort of adult comedy you will never see on American network television...which makes it all the more naughty fun for us over here on this side of the Pond. No extras to speak of, though, for this bare-bones presentation.
"Professional student" and one-time English teacher Edward (Martin Clunes), is on the run. Wanted by the police for murder, he makes arrangements to leave England for Malagrena in South America, as he talks directly to the viewers and tells his story. Two years before, Edward had befriended Dennis (Neil Dudgeon), a morbidly boring public accountant who did the books for Edward's boss, Clive Phillips (Matt Bardock), the cocky, hideous "barrow boy" owner of the Clive Phillips School of English for Foreigners. Wealthy twit Dennis took a condescending shine to penniless-yet-Oxford-educated Edward, mainly for Edward's pose as a wine expert, a skill that didn't impress Dennis' voluptuous, sex-starved wife, Karen (Julie Graham), in the slightest: she just wanted Edward for a lover. Enthusiastically rising to her challenge, Edward seals the deal with Karen on a joint trip with Dennis to France, where Edward meets plumy Alison (Lindsay Duncan), a wan, moneyed aristocrat who's just to Edward's liking. Events spiral out of control, however, when Dennis is accidentally killed (...or is he), and the prospect of turning lover Karen into a wife crosses the amoral Edward's mind.
I haven't seen Clunes in what now apparently is his signature role as physician Doc Martin (Stuart Galbraith IV handles those sets here at DVDTalk), but I did enjoy him in the original British version of Men Behaving Badly (as much as I enjoyed the much-missed American retooling), and I must say he's perfectly cast here as a jaunty, amoral bastard who likes his free wine and illicit sex. Working from a screenplay by Nigel Williams, Edward addresses the audience throughout Dirty Tricks like an snobby, wiseass Alfie (the Michael Caine take, of course), narrating his various misdeeds and wrong thinking while smugly grinning about it all―the irony of course being that this highly-educated Alfie has far fewer scruples than that original scammer. One might be tempted to just cruise along with Clunes' irresistible cheek and forget that the character he's playing is a real rotter, regardless of his constant protestations that he's not a murderer. Reminding me of that giant in the old Disney classic cartoon, Mickey and the Beanstalk, with his smashed, ballooned lips and jug ears, Clunes' high-energy, randy appeal is completely engaging, as much for his seeming lack of self-consciousness (he bares his bottom here without pause, while gorping into the camera during his simulated sex scenes), as for his confident (one might even say smug) assessment of his own comedic talents (when he started the fake, almost overdone cry jags over the death of his wife, I hit the floor).
Fortunately, Clunes is smart enough to never to go "cutesy" with the character, letting us know right from the start that Edward is a sponger, a cheat (he peeks at a wine label when he's challenged as to its vintage), and a thin-skinned opportunist who vows revenge over an insult he should just shrug off (when Dennis calls him a "professional student"). Even though Clunes is so likeable, and it's fun to see him first lust after Karen, and then bag her, and then ruin it all when he marries her, we really don't like Edward. So we don't actually mind first rooting for our horny, aspiring-bourgeois Tom Jones, only to then take pleasure in watching him squirm as his own too-clever Dick scheme begins to unravel at a furious (and hilarious) pace. That's a tough line to walk, letting the audience enjoy both a character's success and downfall without asking for the slightest bit of sympathy or identification in return, and Clunes does it beautifully. The rest of the cast gets their laughs in, too. Graham gives us a glimpse of those perfectly-shaped breasts before she becomes very funny whingeing on about Edward being so cold, while Dudgeon is amusing as the dreary account who's mind-numbingly tedious. More should have been done to let Bolam fine-tune his potentially funny spoof of the dogged English detective stereotype, while Martin Marquez scores, next to Clunes, the movie's biggest laughs with his humorless torturer, Garcia. At 146 minutes, one might think that Dirty Tricks could drag after its main point was made, but thankfully, director Paul Seed and Clunes keep the film on the run, creating a wicked black comedy sex thriller that seems to play only half that long.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.