As Time Goes By

Strip away the formulaic ending and 'Calendar Girls' becomes a lighthearted, heartfelt and cheeky delight.

January 01, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Calendar Girls has a bunch of upper-middle-age Brit gals, all members in good standing of their local garden club, posing coyly nude for the group's annual fund-raising calendar. Full of saucy good humor and women winkingly refusing to act their age, it's one of those movies that is inevitably referred to somewhere as "the feel-good movie of the year."

So, what's not to like? Not much - until the last third of the movie, when the filmmakers' well runs dry, what was once winsome becomes cloying and the whole endeavor turns into a story with a beginning and a middle, but no end. When Calendar Girls is over, one is left with the impression of a director who ran out of either time, money or patience, certainly not story.

The movie stars Helen Mirren and Julie Walters as Chris and Annie, a pair of old friends who have remained members of the local Women's Institute more out of habit than anything else - the meetings, with their endless discussions of broccoli, butterflies and other things horticultural, bore them silly. So they tend to be slightly subversive, cracking wise under their breath and generally not taking the august institution all that seriously.

Every year, the ladies put together a calendar - usually of bucolic scenes involving bridges and such - to raise money for charity. But when Annie's husband, John (John Alderton), dies of leukemia, the two chums decide to try something different. Determined to buy a new couch for the waiting room at the local hospital (the old one, Annie discovers at the worst possible time, is threadbare and uncomfortable), and realizing the money they usually raise from the calendars would barely pay for a cushion, they come up with something a little more attuned to popular tastes.

At first, the notion of posing for the calendar proves a hard sell; some of the women jokingly insist that not even their husbands have seen them naked. But gradually, a combination of peer pressure, pride and a dash of subversiveness persuade 12 women to become calendar girls.

Now, the idea of a bunch of fifty- and sixtysomething women posing in the buff may hardly seem like a sure money-grabber, but the women's aim is modest. Little do they suspect that not only Britain, but the world, will find the idea irresistible.

Mirren, an actress hardly known for her comic films, appears to be having a blast as Chris, who insists she sees nothing naughty about what she's proposing, but really gets a kick from the idea of putting her body out there on display (she's one of the few cast members who actually appears topless).

And Walters, who's made a career of playing saucy working-class types, is certainly in her element. Even though the script has her playing the more level-headed of the pair, she clearly shares her friend's impatience with the tried and true. What's more, she and Alderton make an extremely appealing couple. If it weren't for the obvious affection they shared for each other, the calendar would have been just a publicity stunt; with it, the women's brainstorm is an honest (if unusual) sign of deep affection.

Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth's script deserves praise for regarding the women's admittedly past-prime-time bodies with humor, not laughter. The gentle nature of the story finds humor in the situations - especially the photo sessions, where the women insist the photographer set up the camera, then leave while one of them takes the picture - but never in the women themselves. Additional kudos to a plotline that suggests sexiness doesn't stop at a certain age. (The photos, by the way, are beautiful and fun and - yes - sexy, but not salacious in the least.)

Where the film stumbles badly, however, is in its attempts to wrap up the story. Yes, the film is based on a calendar that really did take the world by storm in 1999, an international success story that included an appearance by several of the women on The Tonight Show.

But once Calendar Girls leaves Britain, it's as if all the life has been drained out of it. Once on these shores, it becomes a typical (and much less interesting) story of strained friendships and star-crossed common folk who become unduly intoxicated by the big time.

A film as clever and embracingly ribald as this shouldn't have to resort to cliche in the end; director Nigel Cole should have kept his girls in Britain and kept the mood light. The conflict of the film's final third seems forced, the ultimate ending abrupt and curiously unimaginative.

Cheeky humor like that embraced by Calendar Girls shouldn't have to rely on formula for its resolution. Here's betting the unlikely pin-up girls of the real-life Rylstone and District Women's Institute would have come up with something a lot more satisfying.

Calendar Girls

Starring: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters

Directed by: Nigel Cole

Released by: Touchstone Pictures

Rated: PG-13 (brief nudity, some language and drug-related material)

Time: 108 minutes

SUN SCORE * * 1/2

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