`Paradise' works hard to please

Preview: `Vacuuming Completely Nude,' about a vacuum salesman, has edge, great performances and originality.

March 23, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

We are only a quarter of the way through 2002, but I guarantee you that BBC America's Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise is going to be one of the 10 best movies you will see on television all year. It has almost everything that television haters claim the medium lacks: originality, edge, daring performance and searing social commentary.

I love this jagged, crazy rant of a film from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting).

The great performance comes from Timothy Spall (Shooting the Past) as Tommy Rag, an amoral, repellent, turbo-charged madman of a vacuum cleaner salesman working the bleak, gray housing projects of Manchester, England. This apostle of the installment plan sells his vacuum cleaners to those too poor to have carpet and leaves them feeling like they have somehow been transformed to a new and better life by their purchase.

Rag, wildly overweight with a complexion that vacillates from pasty to high-blood-pressure red, lives out of his economy-sized car so that he can stay on the road making sales. He drives like a lunatic, swigging brandy, chain-smoking cigarettes and veering across lanes as he races from one sales "lead" to another.

As if Rag weren't crazy and dangerous enough, the script from Jim Cartwright (The Rise and Fall of Little Voice) turns the flame under him even higher a few minutes into the film.

Just as it looks as if Rag is about to win a two-week luxury vacation and The Golden Vac Award (a gold-plated version of the instrument he peddles) for making the most sales, Rag's boss places a trainee with him.

The trainee, Pete (Michael Begley) is as meek as Rag is aggressive. What Pete really wants to be is a nightclub disc jockey. He only takes the sales apprenticeship because his girlfriend is tired of stripping and has threatened to leave him if he doesn't get a job that pays. She is withholding sex until Pete makes his first sale.

"Rule No. 2," Rag shouts to his wide-eyed intern through a mouth full of dry cereal he pulls from a box in his glove compartment, "always start your day with a good breakfast."

The cereal is washed down with a swig of brandy as Rag's foot comes down hard on the accelerator, and the car goes screeching off with Pete holding on for dear life.

As they bounce across Manchester, Rag puts one of his self-made "motivation tapes" on the car player. "Sell, sell, [expletive] sell!" it screams over and over.

Thematically, this is a postmodern Glengarry Glen Ross meets Death of a Salesman, but it is more post-apocalyptic in look and feel. The film is shot at weird, tilted angles with cameras shooting up at Rag, for example, from the glove compartment of his car. The shot makes you feel the constricted, pressure-cooker atmosphere in which Rag exists.

This is not Masterpiece Theatre, folks. Shot in 20 days on tape with digital cameras, Vacuuming has an impressionistic, gritty, grainy look.

With its grim urban landscape by day, neon by night, and in-the-car slamming about, Vacuuming reminds me more than anything else of the first time I read Beat poetry. Think Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac; that's the kind of marvelous, mad energy it has.

And, yet, there is also a tremendous visual lyricism to some of the scenes. The final tableau with Tommy Rag alone on a beach at night is arresting, unforgettable and shot through and through with the kind of deadly truth about our advanced consumer culture that mainstream media almost never acknowledge, let alone try to burn into your heart and brain.

See Tommy sell. Sell, sell [expletive] sell!

Weekend TV

What: Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise

Where: BBC America (available on most digital cable and satellite systems)

When: Tomorrow night at 10

In brief: If you must watch the Oscars, tape, tape [expletive] tape!

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