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Peter's Friends Reviews

Directed by English theatrical wunderkind Kenneth Branagh (HENRY V, DEAD AGAIN), PETER'S FRIENDS is a kind of English version of Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 reunion drama, THE BIG CHILL. Though not as affecting as the Kasdan film, it's infinitely zanier. A pseudo-somber voiceover sets the tone: "There are some friends you are wedded to because of love, trust ... or simple embarrassment." Over the opening credits, we see Peter (Stephen Fry) and his motley crew of friends staging a ridiculous (and unappreciated) musical revue at a formal New Year's party. It's 1982, their last time together before graduating. After ten years pass (shown via fleeting newsreel footage documenting the era), Peter impulsively decides to throw a New Year's reunion at his recently inherited country house. Everyone's excited at the prospect, though a few experience severe separation anxiety before making the trip. The gentle Maggie (Emma Thompson), a delightfully neurotic publisher of self-help books who can't help herself enough to find a husband, leaves photos of herself around the apartment so her cat won't get lonely. Roger (Hugh Laurie) has a hard time getting his wife Mary (Imelda Staunton) to leave at all; she's practically traumatized at the thought of leaving behind their infant son, despite the presence of a perfectly competent babysitter. Carol (Rita Rudner), the only American in the group, is the glitzy star of a successful American TV sitcom written by her husband Andrew (Branagh), a once-promising playwright who has found fame and fortune in Hollywood. A health nut and a snob, Carol comes dressed for a weekend at the Waldorf and literally runs for the "best" room (Peter's). Her renown fails to awe her companions, some of whom haven't even heard of her show. There's no TV in the house, and housekeeper Vera (Phyllida Law, mother of Emma Thompson) refuses a bribe to cook special weight-watching meals for her. Wondering aloud, Carol asks, "Did you ever see `Upstairs, Downstairs'?" Andrew, a recovering alcoholic, feels he owes Carol everything for "saving his life" (they met at an AA meeting in LA), but is in fact far from happy with the relationship. He briefly falls off the wagon before facing up to his dilemma, and the couple separate before the weekend is over, with Carol leaving early after a movie offer from California. Roger and Mary are accomplished jingle writers whose normally blissful marriage has been threatened by a family tragedy. Months before, one of their twins died accidentally. Mary realizes she's unjustly blamed Roger for their infant's death, and the two eventually turn the reunion into a second honeymoon. Gorgeous single swinger Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel), who had slept with all the guys years back, brings along low-brow married lover Brian (Tony Slattery), her latest cheating heart. He loses his charm for Sarah when he offers to leave his wife for her, and the group makes her understand the no-win basis of her serial relationships with married men. Sweet, frumpy Maggie has also arrived with a secret agenda: to seduce Peter into marriage. (Carol gives her a cosmetic make-over after telling her she "makes Mother Theresa look like a hooker.") Maggie appears clad only in a robe at Peter's door late at night, imploring him to "fill me with your little babies." The stunned bachelor admits he's bisexual, kindly adding that if he weren't, "you'd be at the top of my list, along with Michele Pfeiffer and River Phoenix." Peter's condition turns into the film's one sour note. The revelation that he has taken a blood test and been found HIV-positive gives the film a tacked-on, exploitative ending. PETER'S FRIENDS, while relaxed and blithely spirited, never quite achieves what it sets out to. The problem isn't the acting or direction, but the screenplay, written by US comedienne Rudner and her husband Martin Bergman, who was a classmate of Thompson's at Cambridge in the early 80s. The script is little more than a collection of gags that favors throwaway one-liners over character development. Peter and his friends come very close to being caricatures, with Rudner's showbiz celeb the most egregious--a cartoonish victim of her own excess. Rudner is a clever, funny performer, but there's just too much of her at the expense of everyone else. (One advantage of writing your own dialogue is that you can give yourself the most, and the best, lines.) PETER'S FRIENDS tries to be a blend of Ealing comedy, Sturges and Capra, spiked with wisecracks trendy enough to satisfy the short attention span of a nightclub audience. Despite an enormously gifted cast, the result is closer to an extended segment of "Saturday Night Live" than to THE BIG CHILL or John Sayles's THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN. Director Branagh shows a flair for comedy and, except when Rudner is overdoing her thing, PETER'S FRIENDS has a light-hearted touch. The lively pace is helped by several rock and pop tunes from the time of Peter's and his friends' college days. Above all else, the film allows some of Britain's best young dramatic actors the chance to flex their funnybones. (Profanity, nudity.)