It's been just over a week since I started the emphatically named "FilmQuest 2012" column and I've already seen five of the thirty arbitrarily selected major movies that I had been so woefully ignorant of. This time around it's the turn of 1997's 'The Full Monty' - that small ($3.5 million budget) British comedy that ended up an international box office sensation (earning just under $258 million) and became a surprise rival to 'Titanic' at that year's Academy Awards (nominated for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay, winning one for Anne Dudley's score).
In Peter Cattaneo's film six Sheffield lads decide to become male strippers in a society where that seems to be the most dignified remaining option. The disintegration of the city's once-booming steel industry casts a shadow over all the characters, from the suicidal Lomper (Steve Huison) - who lives with his elderly mother - to the mill's former manager Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), whose wife has been in the dark about his joblessness for the last six months. Gerald has bought into the middle class dream and stands to lose his ski holidays, tanning bed and various object d'art. Meanwhile loveable hustler Gaz (Robert Carlyle), the brains behind the stripping scheme, is in equally desperate need of income: in danger of losing access to his son (William Snape) if he can't start making child support payments to his ex-wife.
In fact way back in 1997 Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy (who plays Gaz's portly mate Dave) were not only shown on the dole, but they could even be seen to shoplift VHS tapes (I told you it was old) from ASDA without fear of losing audience sympathies. We route for them and are never encouraged to doubt their good intentions and kindly character, even as they're also shown to turn down several offers of employment considered demeaning.
Gaz rejects his ex-wife's attempts to get him doing unskilled labour for a (pre-minimum wage) sum of £2.50 an hour, whilst Dave is mocked for taking up work as a security guard at the aforementioned supermarket: a job he eventually runs away from, shoplifting as he does so, with the moment depicted as liberating rather than debauched. And yet the film somehow never implies that they aren't serious about looking for work. More than anything all of the characters long for their old jobs back. So much so that a good portion of 'The Full Monty' sees its characters hanging out in the abandoned steel mill, with seemingly nowhere else to go. They are a displaced class of men who no longer feel of use or relevance.
Particularly effective (probably the best scene in whole movie) is the look on Gaz's face when he realises he's potentially sabotaged Gerald's efforts at securing a new job. Tom Wilkinson's public breakdown is one of many tender moments that prevents the film from taking unemployment and its pitfalls too lightly. It's overwhelmingly sensitive and kindly disposed towards its characters. A fact which ensures this comedy is never less than watchable even if (to me at least) the jokes aren't very funny.