"Whatever you do, do NOT refer to this film as a musical." That was the proclamation of British filmmaker Mike Leigh when "Topsy-Turvy" was screened at the New York Film Festival.
True, there are large-scale musical numbers, but these set pieces are there to illustrate and, in some cases, advance the plot. Instead, what Leigh has achieved is the most successful integration of theatrical production numbers and comedy-drama since Bob Fosse tackled "Cabaret" in the early 1970s. And like that movie, "Topsy-Turvy" is also set during a period of upheaval, although one more subtly portrayed.
Fans of Leigh's "social surrealism" (best demonstrated in the Oscar-nominated "Secrets & Lies" and the critically acclaimed "Life Is Sweet" and "Naked") will be in for a bit of a shock. In attempting his first large-scale period piece, the writer-director focuses not on the proletariat but on a turning point in the collaboration between bon vivant Sir Arthur Sullivan (a fine Alan Corduner) and the dour William S. Gilbert (an appropriately irascible Jim Broadbent).
The Victorian era mores were beginning to loosen, and Leigh slyly depicts this through Sullivan's relationship with the married Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David), in some cast members' objections to loose-fitting costumes that press the boundaries of propriety, and by introducing technological innovations such as a reservoir pen and the telephone.
What is perhaps most impressive about this film, however, is that Leigh once again employed his tried and true methods of improvisations with the cast before actually writing the script. Despite the confines of historical fact, he has managed to craft an intriguing if overstuffed jewel box of a film. Some will carp over its split between biopic and backstage drama, while others may feel there are too many asides.
If Leigh has a weakness as a director, it is that he tends to include extraneous material. In "Topsy-Turvy," there are several such instances. On the other hand, Leigh is not a self-indulgent filmmaker; those added sequences are there either to provide background or to give a particular actor a moment. Still, there is a shapeless feel to the material, as if burdened with an excess of riches, Leigh felt he had to include it all.
The plot conflict arises from Sullivan's desire to compose loftier work than the popular operettas for which he became renowned. He voices his concerns that Gilbert (rankled by being called the "king of topsy-turvy" by the august Times of London) is repeating himself, and the pair is at loggerheads over fulfilling their contract with the Savoy Theatre. Through happenstance, Gilbert hits upon an idea that develops into "The Mikado," which rejuvenates their creative partnership.
On this rather slight outline, Leigh and company hang a visually and aurally beautiful film. Cinematographer Dick Pope bathed the film in crisp, clean lighting, lending it the look of history come alive, while production designer Eve Stewart crafted astonishingly detailed interiors and Lindy Hemming designed strikingly colorful costumes.
For the members of the D'Oyly Carte company, Leigh specifically hired actors who could sing. Among the more notable are Kevin McKidd, Jessie Bond, Timothy Spall and Martin Savage. While all of the actors turn in fine work, special note must also be made of Lesley Manville, whose heartbreaking performance as Gilbert's neglected wife gives the film some added dimension.
For those who prefer a more straightforward and comprehensive biographical film about the duo, they should check out 1953's "The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan" with Robert Morley and Maurice Evans. Those interested in a leisurely, if slightly meandering, but well-acted depiction of creativity filtered through Gilbert and Sullivan should check out "Topsy-Turvy."
* MPAA rating: R, for a scene of risque nudity.
Jim Broadbent: William S. Gilbert Allan Corduner: Arthur Sullivan Dexter Fletcher: Louis Suki Smith: Clothilde Wendy Nottingham: Helen Lenoir
A USA presentation. Director Mike Leigh. Screenplay Mike Leigh. Producer Simon Channing-Williams. Director of photography Dick Pope. Editor Robin Sales. Music Carl Davis and Arthur Sullivan. Production designer Eve Stewart. Costume designer Linda Hemming. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
It looks like tough sledding for Hollywood this pre-Christmas weekend, according to distribution executives with an eye on tracking study data.None of the three new wide releases appears likely to open impressively.
"It doesn't look too exciting in terms of the openings," said one studioexecutive. "The first choice on 'Bicentennial Man' is running only like 8%. Now, admittedly, it's (only mid-week) but I would think they would like to have been in double digits by now."
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Columbia Pictures' PG-rated sci-fi fantasy "Bicentennial Man," directed by Chris Columbus and starring Robin Williams, opens Friday at about 2,200 theaters.
While 2,200 theaters is certainly a wide break, it's not as wide as last weekend's theater count for "Toy Story 2" (3,257), "The Green Mile" (2,875), "The World Is Not Enough" (3,063), "End Of Days" (2,652) or "Sleepy Hollow" (3,065).
"It's plenty wide enough to get you to a $15 million or, even, $20 million opening, if the picture is there," a distributor observed. "These additional runs that have been added from 2,000 to 3,000 are, for the most part, rather marginal runs.
"They're not going to keep you from getting $20 million, if you've got the goods. But 'Bicentennial Man,' from this tracking now, is nowhere near $20 million. It's lucky to crack double digits."
"'Anna' is only a 6% first choice," the executive added. Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13-rated drama "Anna and the King," directed by Andy Tennant and starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, arrives Friday at about 2,000 theaters.
"'Stuart Little's" like a 5% first choice, but it's a kids' movie, so who knows?" he said. "It could certainly be $8-10 million, which would put it there with 'Anna and the King.'"
Typically, films targeted to kids do not track well because the research does not generally reflect children's moviegoing plans. "Stuart Little," Columbia's PG-rated family comedy directed by Rob Minkoff and starring Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie and Jonathan Lipnicki, kicks off Friday at more than 2,800 theaters.
"It's hard for me to believe that 'Bicentennial Man' doesn't at least get into the low teens (in millions of dollars opening weekend)," he said. "I've got to believe the tracking is just low at this point.
"It's a Robin Williams movie. If they don't crack $12-13 million, even that would be a disappointment."
A big factor in how well the new films do is how well Buena Vista/Disney and Pixar's blockbuster "Toy Story 2" continues to hold. The G-rated computer-animated sequel is expected to have $200 million through New Year's, on its way to $250 million to $275 million or more in domestic theaters. Directed by John Lasseter, "Toy 2" features the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, Wayne Knight, Laurie Metcalf, Estelle Harris and R. Lee Ermey.
"If 'Toy Story' takes the same percentage drop (of 34%) it took last weekend, it will do $12 million," he noted. "If 'Green Mile' is down 38%, it's $11 million. If it's down 35%, it's $12 million. I think both 'Toy Story' and 'Green Mile' are somewhere in the $11-12 million range. Then 'Bicentennial Man,' maybe, gets above that. But those three could be right in there together (fighting for the top spot on the chart)."
Warner Bros. and Castle Rock Entertainment's R-rated prison death-row drama "The Green Mile," written and directed by Frank Darabont, stars Tom Hanks. "My hunch is 'Toy Story' out grosses ' Green Mile,'" a close observer of the marketplace commented. "I think 'Green Mile' is going to take a 35-40% hit. 'Toy Story' is hanging in there well."
Family-appeal films will get some help, a distributor said, because, "Beginning this Monday, a lot of kids are out of school for the two-week holiday break. That's very favorable to Sunday's business for any movie that gets a family or kids audience. Of course, that means 'Toy Story' and 'Stuart Little' and 'Anna,' to some extent. That will mean a strong Sunday for those movies.
"I think 'Toy Story' probably beats 'Green Mile.' The question is, can 'Bicentennial Man' get up there enough to beat 'Toy Story 2' But, I think, 'Toy Story' does no worse than No. 2 this weekend. And, maybe, 'Green Mile' is third. Then, it's between 'Anna' and 'Stuart Little' and 'Deuce Bigalow' for that $7-9 million range, probably."
Buena Vista/ Touchstone's R-rated youth-appeal comedy "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo" opened to a brisk $12.2 million last weekend. Directed by Mike Mitchell, it stars Rob Schneider. It has an advantage in that its young adult and teen-age audience is more available to do pre-Christmas moviegoing than the adult audience is.
Filling out the lower rungs of this weekend's Top 10 will be holdovers such as MGM's PG-13-rated James Bond epic "The World Is Not Enough," directed by Michael Apted and starring Pierce Brosnan; Universal and Beacon Pictures' R-rated supernatural thriller "End of Days," directed by Peter Hyams and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; Paramount's R-rated period action-drama "Sleepy Hollow," directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci; and Universal's R-rated thriller "The Bone Collector," directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.
Looking ahead to the next weekend, there are encouraging signs for both Warner Bros.' drama "Any Given Sunday," directed by Oliver Stone and starring Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz, opening Dec. 22 at about 2,500 theaters; and Paramount's drama "The Talented Mr. Ripley," written and directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett, opening Christmas Day at about 2,200 theaters.
"I've heard reports from exhibitors who have seen 'Any Given Sunday' that they liked the movie," says one studio executive. "They're a reflection of their audience. What's particularly making it look stronger is that (Universal's) 'Man On the Moon' is not screening (well)." Directed by Milos Forman, "Moon" stars Jim Carrey as the late comedian Andy Kaufman. It opens Dec. 22 at about 2,000 theaters.
"The same exhibitors who were optimistic about 'Truman Show,' even though it wasn't a traditional Jim Carrey vehicle (but) just because they liked the movie, seem to be skeptical about 'Man On the Moon," an insider said. "I think the conventional wisdom is now that the best hope for that movie is to open on the strength of Jim Carrey because after that initial week or so, it's going to go south.
"I think 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' could have a similar problem in smaller markets in the South and in the Midwest after 10 days. But 'Ripley,' I think, will hold in there well in the big cities. 'Ripley' is sort of a chick flick, and 'Any Given Sunday' is definitely a man's movie."
Overall, he concluded, "I think 'Ripley' and 'Any Given Sunday' are looking very strong right now for an adult audience over the holidays and into January in what is generally perceived now as going to be a weak Christmas, certainly weak compared to Thanksgiving.
"Exhibitors are saying they are anticipating a soft Christmas both because of the calendar, with Christmas being on Saturday, but also because of the product, which, by and large, they've seen now."
When Christmas falls on a Saturday, it hurts Friday night business because Christmas Eve is traditionally a night that many people stay home rather than go out to see movies.
Looking at the weeklong Christmas-New Year's period, he added, "For that Saturday and Sunday, 'Ripley' and 'Sunday' have a chance to be No. 1, but for the seven days from Christmas to New Year's, I believe 'Toy Story's' No. 1. Once you get into that holiday week, every day's just another $5-6 million. It just cranks out on the cash register. 'Toy Story' is a family movie that adults are willing to see, and that's important, as we saw over Thanksgiving."
It also helps that "Toy Story 2" runs about only 90 minutes and can have more performances per day than a number of other holiday season releases with running times of 2-3 hours.
"It makes a difference, particularly once you get to Christmas," says one distribution expert. "There's so much film out there that in a lot of megaplexes where at Thanksgiving pictures could be playing on two or three screens (because there was less product in the marketplace) and you'd get the staggered showtimes, by the time you get down to Christmas week, a lot of those movies will be down to one screen.
"This is a problem for 'The Green Mile' (which runs 3 hours) because 'The Green Mile' needs as 'Titanic' needed those double screens for the staggered showtimes. But because they opened Dec. 10 and depending on what kind of drop they have this weekend, in a lot of complexes they will lose that second screen Christmas week. And that will hurt them. 'Toy Story' in a lot of cases will still be on two screens, but even if it's only on one, you get more shows in."
For some moviegoers, he adds, "Running time is a negative when they look at what they might go see. Three hours is four hours when you include getting there and going home. And if you go out for dinner, it becomes five or six hours."
On the specialized front, a number of Oscar and Golden Globe nomination hopefuls will be trying to attract moviegoers in major cities this weekend. Miramax's PG-13-rated drama "The Cider House Rules" will expand from exclusive runs in New York and Los Angeles to a platform release in the top 20 markets. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, it stars Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron and Michael Caine. Set at an orphanage in Maine, the film is based on the best seller by John Irving, who adapted his novel to the screen.
New Line's R-rated drama "Magnolia" opens exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles. Set in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, it weaves nine different stories together over the course of its three-hour running time. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights"), it stars an ensemble cast headed by Tom Cruise, William H. Macy and Julianne Moore.
USA Films' R-rated Civil War drama "Ride With the Devil" widens to the top 25 markets. Directed by Ang Lee, it stars Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and pop singer Jewel.
USA Films' R-rated bio-drama "Topsy-Turvy" opens exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, it stars Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner in the story of Britain's Gilbert & Sullivan at a turning point in their musical careers.