I’ve owned the DVD of Sex Lives of the Potato Men for a long time, certainly more than a decade I think, and I’ve never seen more than the first few minutes or so, for one reason or another. But today, for the sake of science, I have decided to finally watch it, in its entirety, so that if anyone decides to weigh in and claim it as one of the worst British films ever made, I can at least form an opinion based on primary referencing, and not falling back to second-hand commentary.
Even though it was released in 2003, this film has the feel of the 1990s imprinted all over it. There’s a grim, greasy patina to the whole thing, and a feeling that it’s sitting in an increasingly stagnant puddle of a lad culture that was starting (slowly) to look increasingly crass in the post-millennial comedown. Given that the BBC have made Sean Lock’s 15 Storeys High available again following his death, its useful to perhaps consider them together briefly. 15SH debuted in November 2002, a few months before SLotPM was made(1), and is certainly very much in keeping with the mood of living in uncomfortably grim circumstances in your twenties and early thirties in an urban environment. To say that SLotPM is a lot broader is something of an understatement, however. You really do get a feel for the whole thing tonally in the first five minutes or so, and it really doesn’t have a any of the subtlety, or the absurdism, of 15SH. Lots of that is down to the writing and direction. Andy Humphries, who wrote and directed is no Sean Lock as a writer, but it didn’t stop him doubling down and saying that it was simply that critics didn’t get it when the film was panned on release. It’s interesting that his subsequent career has been much more focused on documentaries (some of which are not bad at all, actually).
The cast is actually very strong. Looking back from now, the list of really good talent in this film, from Vegas and Crook, Mark Gatiss (playing very much to a League of Gentlemen template), all the way down to Julia Davis (and even a fleeting appearance by Adrian Chiles, playing a party host) suggests that what you’re going to get is going to be worth the effort.
It does have a more than passable soundtrack. You’d think that any film that starts with Motörhead’s Ace of Spades in its title sequence is going to be a winner, with a bunch of other banging tunes in there, such as Come On Eileen, Orgasm Addict, and A Message To You, Rudy. This, together with the original music is one thing the film does get right.
It feels sometimes like it’s desperately trying to be a kind of descendant of the Confessions movies. In both cases, you get a bunch of mostly pathetic and pretty clueless men making themselves look very silly because they’re constantly bypassing their critical faculties to think with their lower brain(2). The big difference is that that those films, even then, relied much more on the use of innuendo. Here there is none; it’s all pretty much laid out in a plate with little room for nuance; part of the fun of well-deployed innuendo is that it’s playful, and doing it all with a bit of a knowing wink. If you were being a bit wanky about the whole thing, you might try to claim that this level of bawdiness was consciously Chaucerian, but I’m not sure it was thought about to that degree. It doesn’t do a lot for women either, though it doesn’t make them look quite as useless and awful as all the male leads. It’s generally just a really queasy experience because at heart, almost everyone is a grotesque. And at this point, I have to say that I’m not remotely prudish, and I like a good dirty gag as much as the next person (possibly more), but it’s all just way less than the sum of its parts, because of that lack of variety.
Johnny Vegas will never not be funny, and his reactions to some of what is thrown at him here does make me chuckle, but it’s thin gruel: there’s no deftness. At all. And becasue the gross-out meter is ramped up that early, there’s no real place to go after that, so it just piles it on. It’s unremitting. And it’s that lack of a change of pace that kills it as a film. You could understand if there were stand-out gross interludes in amongst something a bit more dialled down, but it just doesn’t happen, so all you’re left with by the time it’s all over is a slighty dirty, faintly depressed feeling, mixed with the relief that it’s all over.
(1) The film is marked with a 2003 copyright notice, but didn’t appear in cimenas until the following year.
(2) Even the Romans realised this. One of their favoutite slang words for penis (which itself comes from the word for tail) is mentula, whose literal sense is “the little mind/brain”.