I've a longstanding affection for John Landis, largely based on the films which didn't make a lot of money (as opposed to crowd pleasing crap like Trading Places). I still think that American Werewolf in London is one of the most perfect movies I've ever seen, purely because I've never seen another movie which manages to box the compass so successfully between comedy and drama and tragedy. Everything is in there, and if it doesn't sound ridiculous to say it about a werewolf movie, it's one of the most realistic movies I've ever seen. Not because of the creature effects, but because real life isn't as monotone as movies; in fact, the worse things get in real life, the funnier everyone gets. It's how people cope.
Anyhow, when I saw that Landis was directing Burke and Hare, I thought, that's worth taking a chance on. It's a grisly subject, but if anyone could figure out a way to make me care about bodysnatchers and make me laugh along the way, I figured Landis had a shot at it.
I figured wrong. Either Landis doesn't got it any more, or I've changed and he was never really what I remembered. Mind you, lots of people seem to have thought that Landis could bring it; the movie's a tapestry of Brit actors and director cameos. Some of them are no guarantee of anything; I mean, I like Tim Curry, but as far as I can tell he picks his roles the way drunks order off kebab trucks. Tim's been in some terrible movies, and he's often BEEN the terrible part of the movie. But Tom Wilkinson's never less than solid, and I've never seen Andy Serkis put in a bad performance. Mind you this might be the first time I've seen Andy Serkis get all the way to the end of a movie without dying horribly. (In King Kong he actually dies horribly twice, that's how committed he is to dying horribly). Simon Pegg's always pleasant to watch, and it was nice to see Ronnie Corbett getting work.
The challenge is how do you make a couple of scumbags funny and sympathetic enough for comedy protagonists? Because Burke and Hare were scumbags, it's that simple. Partly, you do it by showing the first couple of body sales as a matter of taking advantage of accidents, and then you skim over the multiple murders that followed. Partly you do it by showing how down on their luck a couple of Irish laborers in Edinburgh would be once the canal building craze tapers off. But mostly, you hope that Pegg and Serkis can sell it, and that's asking too much of them. They're both sound actors but there's only so much you can do with basic likeability; the script just doesn't push them to something big enough to involve the viewer in his gut.
The thing which baffles me is that they couldn't find any Irish or Scottish actors for the principal roles. You've for Serkis and Pegg playing guys from Donegal (it's jarring to hear Pegg get the pronunciation of Donegal JUST wrong every time he mentions it; how did the dialect coach let that one through?), and Curry, Wilkinson and Corbett and Bill Bailey playing Scots. Pretty much every principal speaking role is played by someone who has to fake the accent. Why? It's a great cast, but it's not a big name cast, for goodness sake. Of course, I'm sitting here typing this and I can't think of anyone Scottish to hire.
The biggest misstep in the whole thing is the decision to put an all-girl production of MacBeth into the middle of the plot. Burke's motivation is that he wants the money to impress a girl, but it's just bonkers that the girl he's decided to impress needs money for something as whimsically stupid as an all girl MacBeth. It's a great big horrible distraction in the middle of something which ought to be a lot more focused and grim.
Which is not to say that there aren't little pleasures along the way. Pegg and Serkis get in a lot of clever little moments together, and there's always the fun in every Landis movie of looking out for the director cameos (my favourite is hiding Costas Gavras in a family photograph). And the film closes with a gag that makes you realise what might have been done if they'd got a bit more serious. After a wrapup in which Bill Bailey tells us what happened to all the major characters afterwards, the camera moves through a Victorian looking museum, tagging it University Edinburgh medical school. Pause. Present Day. And the camera settles on a skeleton hanging in a case. The actual skeleton of the actual William Burke, who wound up being used for dissection after Hare sold him out and he was hanged for all the murders. it's a grimly funny moment, and it's a shame that the movie only finds the right tone in the very last shot.