Killing Bono is a problematic movie almost before the opening credits even roll. The premise is supposed to be that an Irish high schooler named Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes) starts a band with his brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) at the same moment their schoolmate Paul Hewson (Martin McCann) starts a rival band. Hewson soon gets his band signed, changes his name to Bono, and the group becomes U2, the biggest rock act in the world. Meanwhile, Neil’s group -- which eventually settles on the name Shook Up -- flounders in obscurity, crippled by mediocre music and infuriatingly poor decisions usually fueled by Neil’s fierce jealousy of U2.
The first of many problems is that before you even start watching the movie, you want to know whether this is a true story. The second problem is that even if you do know that the movie was based on the memoir of a real-life rock journalist and former musician, you’re still distracted by all of the silly ways in which the real story was fictionalized for the screen. You can do a few minutes of research and discover that the climax of the movie, which involves the characters making a secret deal with a famous Irish gangster, is not based on fact. Or that the protagonist did not actually run around Dublin, stalking Bono with a handgun. But you don’t have to. These changes are so obvious and hackneyed that they take you completely out of the story. The reason why it’s so crippling to the movie for the viewer to be keenly aware of -- or at least curious about -- where the script veers away from the real-life story is that it messes with your sense of jeopardy. How high can the stakes really be for these characters if you keep thinking to yourself, “this is obviously not what happened?”
Additionally, while the film is billed as a black comedy, this appears to be a nice way of saying that it’s jarringly uneven. The serious parts are as earnest as a college freshman with an acoustic guitar; the comedic moments are played as madcap and over-the-top as possible, with dialogue that doesn’t fit with the rest of the script, the internal rules of the film’s universe tossed out the window, and the actors resorting to double takes and mugging for the camera. At times, you find yourself wishing they would just stick with the jokes and redo the whole thing as a BBC sitcom.
Of course, it’s possible that the reason why British TV comes so strongly to mind is because this film looks like it was shot for a nickel. But if a shoestring budget were the only thing holding Killing Bono back from greatness, it would still be a solid film -- especially with talented actors like Krysten Ritter, Peter Serafinowicz, and even the late, great Pete Postlethwaite in his last performance onscreen. No, the thing holding Killing Bono back is that, much like with Shook Up, the material just isn’t that good.
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