THE FULL MONTY (UK, 1997) ** 3/4
"The Full Monty," a first feature for both its director and its scriptwriter, brings nothing radically new to the working-class genre in its combination of socially conscious drama, humor, sadness and realism. It is built, however, around a "high concept." "High" does not refer to elitism or aristocracy but rather to a plot that can be summarized in few words: six out-of-work men from Sheffield in Yorkshire, out of work like many others, decide to make a bundle by doing a strip-tease for an all-female audience.
Sheffield, once a thriving steel town --as shown at the movie's opening in a 25-year old, gung-ho, faded documentary--has fallen onto hard times. Steelworkers have been made redundant, and while unemployment moneys apparently still keep coming through for months, they do not suffice. With enforced idleness, there is also psychological trauma, loss of self-respect, loss of respect from the men's wives, generalized sadness, even inability to perform in bed.
For divorced Gaz who loves his most likable teen-age son, there's also the burden of child-support payments that he cannot meet. But then everyone has additional problems. Gerald, formerly the immediate (hence disliked) superior of Gaz and friends, has a lower-middle-classish lifestyle that includes ballroom dancing and terrible taste in home and garden decoration. For months, he has been hiding from his missus the fact that he too was laid off.
One day, Gaz (Robert Carlyle, familiar to some US audiences from "Trainspotting" and "Priest") notices--and sneaks into--a very well attended male strip show "For Ladies Only." Not without difficulty he rounds up colleagues -- including former "enemy" Gerald -- and sets up interviews.
One recruit, a black man called Horse, has leg trouble but can still "do the Funky Chicken." Others are inept. And so on. As expected, Gaz's wild scheme has the built-in makings of comedy as it goes through reticenses, stumbles and goofs before a motley crew of Chippendale (male strippers) dancers materializes. The bonding of the men is not far behind.
There are nice inventive bits in the story, but there are also redundant sections in this tale of redundancy: some protracted footage as the plot builds up; a somewhat belabored gimmick of Gerald being distracted during his first job interview in six months; a dead-end glimpse of two of the would-be dancers discovering mutual attraction. The film comes to an abrupt ending, with the fellows doing "the full monty," that is, stripping totally. (We see only a rear view of them)
There must be a trend these days for movies with no closure, as in the last three films I have seen :"The Edge," "Box of Moonlight" and "The Full Monty." They stop without showing us if and how their characters have been modified by their experiences and what happens next.
On the other hand there are semi-throwaway parts that flesh out the characters: Dave's relation with his wife, his self-consciousness of being fat (but there's a lot fatter!), Gerald's being repossessed, the moving moment of a brass band playing "Abide with Me" at a funeral and other touches. There is also a funny sequence of a police raid after which the group is proven not to have been breaking-and-entering because a surveillance tape of their rehearsal is found. (The video might have served as a learning-through-errors tool but this is not developed).
The acting is excellent. It is as though the private Robert Carlyle's strong, leftist political convictions (he used to be a labor organizer) not only underlie his performance but influence the acting of some of his colleagues as well as the overall mood of the film.
I surmise that had "Monty" been an American product, it would have stressed very broad comedy, even slapstick, for better or worse. Worse, by undermining realism through exaggerations such as a bulkier, John Candy-like Dave in the buff, by leering, by neglecting its socio-political side. Better, by accelerating some sequences. As it is, the film is amusing in a way that gets more chuckles than loud laughter. Interestingly, in the audience I watched it with, the great majority of chuckles came from women.