There are a lot of firsts on offer in modest 1989 Britcom “The Tall Guy”: it’s the feature directorial debut of Mel Smith and it’s the first feature film script by Richard Curtis. It also features the theatrical film debut of Emma Thompson and, briefly, Jason Isaacs.
Blogathon man of the moment, Jeff Goldblum, plays Dexter King a gangly, downtrodden American actor eking out a living in London by playing the straight man to obnoxiously arrogant comedy superstar Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson). When allergies threaten to make his life even more miserable, Dexter finds the motivation to overcome his fear of needles thanks to a chance encounter with Kate (Emma Thompson), a pretty nurse who ignites a spark of hope and changes his life. But when Dexter lands the lead in an upcoming musical adaptation of “The Elephant Man”, his flirty leading lady threatens his future with Kate.
Semi-autobiographical (based on his own experiences acting as the straight man to Atkinson), Richard Curtis’ script is a little too long and not quite as polished as his later efforts would be although you can see in “The Tall Guy” the seeds of many of the gimmicks and flourishes he would use to greater effect in “Four Weddings & A Funeral”, “Notting Hill”, “Love, Actually” and many, many more. Despite the thinness of the script, Thompson injects instant, vivacious life to a character whose world-weary cynicism hides a soft centre and wicked sense of humour but Atkinson rarely finds occasion to get out of second gear as the mean and egotistical Anderson. Goldblum, who only happened to be available due to an actors’ strike in the States, gives good quirk as Dexter King but seems hampered by the Englishness of the script. His trademark eccentricities are blunted by the need to adhere to the carefully crafted script and it’s only through his amiable screen charisma and his sparky chemistry with Thompson that the film manages to raise more than a mild chuckle every so often.
None of the performers, though, are helped by the flat, inert direction provided by Mel Smith, though. The static camera work and lifeless cinematography robs “The Tall Guy” of any sense of energy no matter what Goldblum tries. The film never manages to shake off a feeling of a television sitcom and while the comedy steps up a little once we get to the actual “Elephant!” musical, mostly this is a movie that will be remembered for a sex scene which likely is responsible for Nick Fury’s distaste for triangular cut toast.
It’s a likeable but underwhelming transatlantic effort for Goldblum where his usual effervescent idiosyncrasies are smothered by a surfeit of British TV comedy talent trying their hand at making movies.