Peter's Friends
Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Alphonsia Emmanuel, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Rita Rudner, Tony Slattery, Phyllida Law. Screenplay: Rita Rudner and Martin Bergman.

Peter's Friends immediately invites comparison to The Big Chill, the famous (if not notorious) 1983 Lawrence Kasdan picture in which a cohort of college buddies are reunited by a friend's death. It is a toss-up which of the two films is the more cloying, mechanical, and insincere. They both waste incredibly strong ensembles of performers on a script that requires each character to arrive at their rendez-vous with a Big Problem, but none so Big that a few deliberately-placed laughs and overly familiar pop songs can't fix. What this kind of screenwriting suggests is that the dilemmas faced by these characters—which in Peter's Friends include the death of a child, diagnoses of terminal disease, alcoholism, infidelity, compulsive eating, and chronic loneliness—only matter to the degree that the writer's magic wand of witticisms requires some context, some atmosphere that will lend "depth" to what essentially amounts to a series of one-liners. By a strange paradox, the ostensible reason behind the sudden reconvening of the chums in both movies increasingly seems like an arbitrary occasion for "exploring" those issues that in fact are never quite explored.

Why does this genre endure, and why does it attract actors of the caliber of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson, giving the most interesting performance, just as she did in the similarly structured and similarly doomed Impromptu in 1991? Also appealing among the actors is Phyllida Law, Thompson's real-life mother, but her role as the housekeeper in the manse where Fry is hosting this gathering doesn't really go anywhere. In fact, in reprising the shopworn domestic-worker-as-repository-of-wisdom trope, Law's part is almost as boring as those of co-screenwriter and sole American Rudner, playing a self-obsessed sitcom actress, and Emmanuel, who for some reason agreed to repeat every dubious cultural cliché about the reckless sexual insatiability of black women.

Peter's Friends saves its purportedly most dramatic and most surprising announcement in its final ten minutes, but by the time the climactic admission is made it neither surprises nor engages an audience sated on an hour and a half of comic contrivance and obligatory bickering. Now, if a genuine human emotion or swerve away from immortal character typologies had occurred at picture's end, that might have constituted a real shock. Peter's Friends would likely not be friends in real life, but real life and the kinds of people who inhabit it are subjects to which this film announces its indifference early on. Grade: D+

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