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Film Review | 20,000 Reasons

Its safe and generic script may have ironically been its saving grace, but thanks to cack-handed direction and shoddy production, Malta's first romantic comedy fails to take off

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
29 February 2016, 8:25am
Odd couple: It’s class-crossed lovers time with Ramon (Aldo Zammit) and Sophie (Maria Pia Meli) in Malta’s first big-screen romantic comedy
Odd couple: It’s class-crossed lovers time with Ramon (Aldo Zammit) and Sophie (Maria Pia Meli) in Malta’s first big-screen romantic comedy
So it looks like Malta has finally got its first big screen romantic comedy. Directed by Jameson Cuccardi from a script by Malcolm Galea, 20,000 Reasons was made on a budget of €200,000 after a collaboration between the Malta Film Commission and Film London: Microwave international facilitated its funding by the European Social Fund Cohesion Policy.

Yes, its budget is basically the film’s title, just with an extra zero added. Hope you’ve had your fill of laughs for the day, because that’s just about the only bit of humour you’re getting from here on out.

Ambitious young businesswoman Sophie Bellizzi (Maria Pia Meli) is in a bit of a fix. After her status-quo obsessed grandmother Domenica (Marylou Coppini) practically orders her to get married to her rich but philandering boyfriend Jonathan (Steffan Cherriet Busuttil), threatening her inheritance in the process, Sophie sticks to her guns. Domenica then comes up with a conniving counter-plan: all the properties and cash will instead go to her bratty sister Juliana (Taryn Mamo Cefai) if Sophie isn’t married before turning 30 – that is, in three months’ time... much to the chagrin of their reasonable but powerless father, Alfred (Anthony Ellul).

 

Sophie finds an unlikely ally in her family’s handyman, Ramon (Aldo Zammit), who agrees to go through with the deception of posing as her fiancé – ostensibly because there’s a substantial amount of money in it for him too.

But as the pair begin to develop real feelings for each other, the truth about why Ramon really needs the money comes to the fore, and may just threaten their budding romance.

The generic script, with generic characters and generic plot beats to match, is more than forgivable in and of itself. After all, attempting a clean-and-simple genre piece is a logical choice for a first feature – you should learn the ropes before you start slashing them to ribbons, and what better place to start than with the romantic comedy, arguably the most comfortably formulaic genres of all?

To top it all off, Malta provides the perfect ‘clash of cultures’ narrative for such stories to take place – lovers from opposing backgrounds have been formed in fiction since Romeo and Juliet down to Pretty Woman – and it’s something Galea attempts to capitalize on with his North/South; pepe/working class budding couple.

Sadly, however, all of this is a sketch of how it could all have turned out in a perfect world. Galea’s script could have been an underwhelming but modest success – not quite Malta’s When Harry Met Sally, perhaps, but something to at least run shoulder-to-shoulder with whatever rom-com Hollywood releases to the international multiplexes that given week.

But if recourse to established storytelling tropes is forgivable for a first feature, the complete technical incompetence on display here most definitely is not. Jameson Cuccardi commands the camera with apparently no art direction to steer him. Pointless close-ups abound, matched only in their cack-handed frequency by the equally endless establishing shots of Birgu.

Sometimes, when new characters are introduced into the scene, their counterparts get half of their faces slashed by the frame… because hey, the camera has to move now and we haven’t got the time to think about pesky things like composition, you know? Sound is also an issue – strange noises suddenly appear out of nowhere during scenes in which the characters are simply walking and/or talking, and this is upsetting because it can only be down to poor planning and nothing else.

Neither does it look particularly good. The photography appears to shift as randomly as the sound does, with the lighting changing mid-scene several times, and for no discernible reason.

A surprise cameo offers a hint of cleverness, and a respect for the audience – insofar as we’re expected to appreciate a ‘celebrity’ in-joke – that the rest of the film lacks.

This is one of the most painful take-aways from 20,000 Reasons: that its viewing public is treated like idiots for its entire 80-minute duration. We may forgive one or two of the above glitches in a non-Maltese film, but why should we allow a whole raft of them to go by uncommented upon?

Beyond its technical shortcomings, neither is the comedy particularly effective. The local sphere has had a surge in both stand-up and sketch comedy of late, some of which stems and is promoted by actors and creatives involved in this very film.

But save for a few chuckle-worthy moments – bolstered by an explosion of vulgar humour, more than anything else – this undeniable source of talent hasn’t been put to good use here. This is also down the the editing and direction – better comic timing may have just pushed this production from dire to passable.

And as ever, the final casualty of shoddy production is acting. Final, but sadly also at the forefront of the audience’s experience. It’s the veterans playing entirely to type that emerge relatively unscathed – Marylou Coppini, Anthony Ellul and Nanette Brimmer (as Ramon’s ‘tar-rahal’ mother) know they’ve been asked to play one-note stereotypes and do so with an admirable degree of professional efficiency.

Meanwhile, Maria Pia Meli and Aldo Zammit struggle to lend life and nuance to their characters, hopping as they do from one lazily constructed set-piece – and equally unsatisfying set of lines – to another. 

Closing your eyes and allowing yourself to dream of a better reality, you could probably imagine an entirely workable film arising from the very same concept. A cute romantic comedy set in Malta, employing social norms to tell its story while sending them up at the same time.

But sadly for Cuccardi and his team, a film demands that you see it with your eyes open.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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