It's December & you know what that means. More offerings that I'd only have the neck to release at this time of year!
Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman) is a "frustrated, under-achieving primary school teacher". Every year Maddens' school competes with a local private school to see who can produce the best nativity play, Maddens' school always coming second to Gordon Shakespeare's (Jason Watkins) private school.
Maddens lies to Shakespeare about how a Hollywood producer, his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lore (Ashley Jensen), will be turning his production into a Hollywood film starring his pupils. Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton) , an over-enthusiastic classroom assistant, spreads the rumour, and soon Mr. Maddens finds his lie is out of control. He even travels to America to try and persuade his ex-girlfriend to visit, and discovers she is a receptionist and not a film producer and is unsuccessful in his Hollywood aim.
But finally, with Mr. Poppy's help, the nativity is performed, and, despite a sabotage attempt by Shakespeare (who in trying to outdo Maddens created a gruesome school performance for the private school, which was a flop), the play is a great success, the Hollywood producer visits it and Mr. Maddens and Jennifer are reunited.
Writing an honest review of Nativity, Debbie Isitt's seasonal improv comedy, is a bit like bombing a children's hospital in order to blow up a weapons cache in the basement. That's because standing arm-in-arm in front of experienced cast members such as Martin Freeman and Ashley Jensen is a flock of innocent, eight-to-12 year-old newcomers. Sure, you can lob over a few missiles - a mention of the confused plotting, a word on the scarcity of good one-liners - but sooner or later one of those little sweeties is going to catch your grenade.
The kids, all likeable and refreshingly normal, play the students of Mr Maddens (Freeman), a careworn Coventry schoolteacher and former drama scholar, who gets lumbered with directing the annual pageant at St Bernadette's Primary. It's five years since Maddens' first and only other attempt at the nativity and since then he's watched his old rival Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) flourish at the posh prep school up the road, while his drama school sweetheart Jennifer (Jensen) vamoosed for a job in Hollywood.
When Maddens and Shakespeare bump into each other at a garden centre, Maddens impulsively lies to his ego-baiting enemy that Jennifer, now a successful movie producer, will be coming to St Bernadette's Christmas show and, better yet, she'll be scouting for talent. Maddens' momentary lapse is quickly turned into a full-blown farce by his new teaching assistant, a childish blabbermouth called Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton). Soon TV news crews are descending on the school while local dignitaries jostle for a share of the limelight. Coventry goes crazy for a sprinkle of stardust.
If you've seen either Waiting For Guffman or For Your Consideration then this premise of small-time actors losing their heads over a shot at fame will feel familiar. Christopher Guest and his experienced troupe have covered this ground before and in the same ad-libbed style. That's a real problem for Nativity because Guest and Co. did it much better. Isitt's unplanned approach is courageous but Nativity feels so thrown together that the actors appear unmoored rather than liberated. Telling your actors to "just go for it!" in every scene is all well and good, but stitching the results into something coherent and affecting is a tall order.
Isitt's previous film, Confetti, was similarly chaotic but benefited from being split over three stories and many different characters. In telling one story in a fairly simple, linear way she comes unstuck. Nativity lacks the basic internal logic it needs to function as either comedy or drama. Freeman and Wootton, as a sort of Laurel and Hardy pair, do their best to inject some laughs, but they never enjoy any of those eureka moments that improv sometimes provides. The larger than life Wootton is happy to overplay every scene, but Freeman seems uncomfortable being asked to play everything big. He has the air of a sober latecomer at a particularly drunken Christmas party. Frankly, he's better than this.
Thankfully, the professionals are only half the story. Except for a couple of stage school ringers who stay mostly in the margins, the kids in Nativity are uniformly genuine and charming. When they sing and dance they look and sound just like the children at school productions up and down the country. They're uncoordinated, off-key and out of their depth. Simon Cowell would tell his chauffeur to mow these little rascals down in the car park as they queued to audition. Then reverse back over them. They are a total pleasure to watch. Isitt deserves credit for capturing the touching humanity of the school nativity experience - the collective hope of an audience that the little buggers won't humiliate themselves - and bringing it into the cinema. These boys and girls are the human shield that protects this film. Happy Christmas, Coventry.[/spoiler]
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