Film review: Clockwise (1986)

I just saw the comedy Clockwise starring John Cleese. Here’s the trailer:

Cleese is one of my favorite actors and here he is playing a role that is perfectly suited for him, that of an authority figure frustrated when things don’t go the way he wants them to, as in this scene from Life of Brian

His character Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers is another example of his manic comedic touch.

In the film Clockwise he plays a punctuality-obsessed, super-organized principal of a school invited to give the most important speech of his career to an elite organization of school principals. He starts out in the morning to take a three-hour train ride to give the speech but due to a misunderstanding he misses his train. The entire film is about his efforts to find alternative ways to get to his destination on time, with every plan ending in disaster.

This is a role that is tailor-made for Cleese and so you would think I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I found the film to be only mildly amusing. I think the problem may lie with me and not the film itself. I don’t enjoy comedies in which the premise is someone trying desperately to achieve some important goal and being thwarted every step of the way. This is why, for example, I did not like Ben Stiller’s Meet the Parents, because you knew from the beginning that the film would be about how he would fail in every effort to please his future in-laws.

There are two reasons for my lukewarm response to such comedies. One is that if the main character is sympathetic, I want the person to achieve his or her goal and be successful and having their hopes repeatedly dashed makes me feel sorry for them rather than want to laugh at their plight. The second is that I tend to plan things somewhat carefully and usually have a backup plan in case things go wrong. When things fall apart, I tend to stay calm, analyze the situation, examine the alternatives, and select the best rather than panic and grab wildly at the first option that presents itself, the way that the characters in these kinds of films do. So while I can enjoy this set up in a short sketch comedy, in full-length features I tend to get annoyed with people for repeatedly acting so stupid and that spoils the fun for me.

In an interview in the extras section of the DVD, Cleese makes an interesting observation about a difference between British and American humor audiences that may explain why Clockwise was not a success in its American release. He says that he thinks that the British find absurd situations funny in themselves (which is why farces are so popular over there) while Americans seem to require actual jokes and wisecracks to make them laugh. He may have a point.


  1. says

    I’m from the UK and agree with your point of view. Not all of us find farce funny in and of itself. Personally, I find this type of humour extremely frustrating and predictable. Like you, I have contingency plans in place and even people who do panic when things go wrong, do not do so to the extent of the catalogue of errors in the film Clockwise.

    The problem with Clockwise is that it’s just too long; it might have worked better as a series of half hour dramas, like Faulty Towers which is an absolute gem. A perfect combination of cleaver and creative writing and superb acting.

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