Cinema Veritas

Clockwise

Directed by Christopher Morahan

At the USA Paris

AS HARVARD PROFESSOR David Landes might say, much of modern life depends on clocks, though you wouldn't know that from watching Harvard students. In Clockwise, Mr. Simpson (John Cleese) has based his entire life on punctuality. The ordinary headmaster of an ordinary English public school, Mr. Simpson receives the honor of heading the National Headmasters' Conference. All he has to do is get there on time. And that of course is where, or rather when, things start to go wrong.

Clockwise, like Peter Seller's The Party, is a comedy of slow self-destruction. Mr. Simpson merely misses his train, and the inevitable chain of disasters begins, reaching a comic critical mass in a mud patch in the English countryside. On his journey into an ordinary man's heart of darkness, he incurs the wrath of wife, ex-lover, police, and hapless passersby, and attracts the affections of one of his older students. The climax at the headmasters' conference is a hilarious recreation of Simpson's schoolroom with adult students, bringing the plot into a neat full circle.

Though the supporting performances are strong, John Cleese is always the dominant presence. His progressive breakdown as his life falls apart around him is perfectly rendered with understated humor, frequently punctuated with deadpan slapstick. Both Python cultists and those less familiar with PBS will be pleased.

The biggest problem with this film is that the audience sees the comic premise coming, and while there are plenty of surprises, there are also a lot of gags that one would expect in this sort of comedy. One can often easily guess the next measure of desperation to which Cleese will be driven, whether it be stealing transport or lying to the authorities. So, while the film has plenty of paralysing funniness, it also has long stretches of British dryness and worn-out conventions.

Still, if you have some patience, Clockwise is well worth the time, even if there are just a few minutes of timeless hilarity.