Friday, January 12, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #45: Water

Cast: Michael Caine (Baxter), Valerie Perrine (Pamela), Brenda Vaccaro (Dolores), Leonard Rossiter (Sir Malcolm), Bill Connolly (Delgado), Dennis Dugan (Rob), Fulton Mackay (Eric), Jimmie Walker (Jay Jay), Dick Shawn (Deke Halliday), Fred Gwynne (Spender), Trevor Laird (Pepito), Chris Tummings (Garfield).

Crew: Dick Clement (director), Ian La Frenais (producer), Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and Bill Persky (writers), Mike Moran (music), Douglas Slocombe (cinematography), John Victor Smith (editor), Norman Garwood (production design).

Synopsis: Baxter Thwaites is the pot-smoking governor of Cascara, a wind-swept Caribbean island and one of Britain’s few remaining colonies. Cascara receives no British aid but does have its own liberation front, led by singing rebel Delgado. He has refused to speak until the island is free. Representatives from US oil company Spenco visit Cascara to film a TV commercial beside an abandoned rig. But when they restart the rig, it hits a rich seam of mineral water. A British civil servant, Sir Malcolm Leveridge, tells Baxter that Cascara is being abandoned. All inhabitants will be relocated to another Caribbean island. Baxter is outraged. When he hears Spenco plans to turn the oil rig into a mineral water bottling plant, the governor sees a way to secure the island’s future.

Sir Malcolm agrees to sell the bottling rights, unaware of their value. When the error is discovered, he is sent back to redress the situation. Baxter joins forces with the Cascara Liberation Front. Foreign governments get involved, with US Marines, British SAS troops and French mercenaries all converging on Cascara. Baxter negotiates for Delgado to appear before the United Nations, singing for Cascaran independence. This ploy works but the mercenaries drain the mineral water into the sea. A week later, Baxter is still trying to restart the rig. He succeeds but, instead of water, the drill hits oil. Cascara is rich and independent, after all…


Water was based on a story by screenwriter Bill Persky, parodying the conflicts on Grenada and the Falkland Islands in the early 1980s. British TV comedy writing partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais has created such classic series as The Likely Lads and Porridge. In the 1980s they shifted their joint career towards films and Hollywood. The pair worked with Persky on a TV pilot. He told them his idea for a film and the three men began developed it into a screenplay. Clement became the director with La Frenais as producer and financial backing from Britain’s Handmade Films.

The script attracted the interest of Caine, who agreed to play the lead role of rebellious diplomat Baxter Thwaites. Philip Judge’s book Michael Caine quotes the actor on Baxter’s appeal: ‘The guy is crazy, but loveable. That’s what I liked about him. He has his own sense of humour, but basically events just run him down like a steam-roller.’ Americans were cast in many parts to improve the picture’s US box office appeal in the US. The movie reunited Caine and British character actor Leonard Rossiter, who had appeared together in Deadfall (1968). Rossiter played a British civil servant, Sir Malcolm Leveridge, a part originally offered to John Cleese. This was Rossiter’s final screen role before he died.

Water gave an early big screen role to Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. He became good friends with Caine during a month of location work on the Caribbean island of St Lucia in May 1984. The production moved to Hartland Point in Devon for further location work. Shooting concluded with interiors at Shepperton Studios in June and July.

During filming Clement and La Frenais realised the screenplay was flawed. ‘We were rewriting the ending as we went along and that’s never good,’ Clement told Robert Sellers for the 2003 book Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. ‘In hindsight, I always think you need to get those decisions out of the way before you get on the set. But, on the whole, it was a good shoot. Michael Caine was a fantastic trouper on the film, he was really a joy to work with, enormously supportive. I can’t be more appreciative of his work on it and how professional he was.’

Caine gave an interview to the Guardian newspaper at Shepperton during the final days of filming. ‘This picture is very funny but it’s not going to get anybody an Academy Award,’ he said. ‘It might get a $50-60 million gross, which to me is just as important. If they go broke on this picture they’re not going to give me any more work.’ The actor admitted being a workaholic who couldn’t go more than six weeks without a job. He said this helped explain why he had been in so many films. ‘You don’t go into a film thinking, “This is a load of crap but I need the money.” I do things that I like and then make sure that I get the maximum amount of money out of it. I figure if I’m going to work someone’s going to make massive amounts of money. One of the people is going to be me.’

Water was first released in Britain during January 1985, rated 15. It was savaged by most critics and failed at the box office. Test screening went so badly in America the picture did not find a US distributor for more than a year, finally reaching cinemas in April 1986, rated PG-13. It grossed less than $750,000 million. The film was released on video in 1986, but has since been deleted in the UK. Water made its DVD debut in 2006.

Reviews: ‘The central idea is fresh, the playing enjoyable (Michael Caine as the slovenly governor and Fulton Mackay as a roguish parson are particularly good) but the scattershot of comic incidents has no real bite.’ – The Sunday Telegraph
‘Water is a frenetic mishmash. Michael Caine is fine … but he can’t salvage a production that’s top heavy with multinational plots threatening the island’s harmony.’ – Variety

Verdict: A humourless comedy is a painful experience and Water certainly achieves that. The slapstick visuals and staccato pace betray the TV sitcom background of the filmmakers, with most characters written as one-note cartoons. Having Billy Connolly sing all his lines for the first hour of the film might have seemed funny on the page, but any inherent humour in the idea drains away within minutes. Whenever the action drags, the script adds another group of antagonists, substituting complications for complexity. The editing doesn’t help either. There is a pause after each sight gag or punchline, as if the film is waiting for the intervention of a laugh-track. In the midst of this banality, Caine delivers a typically solid performance. Water aspires to be a 1980s equivalent to the classic Ealing comedies, but it lacks their wit, intelligence or charm.

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