Burke and Hare Review: It’s Time to Grow Up, John
To be honest, I'm not sure I'm really the right person to review this movie. I don't think I've seen more than one movie directed by John Landis (I watched Beverly Hills Cop III twice about 10 years ago, and I can't even remember what that was about), though by all accounts, he hasn't been relevant since the 80s and he hasn't directed a full feature film since Susan's Plan in 1998. With Burke and Hare, I assumed this was his attempt to move back into the mainstream and to delve into a darker form of comedy than what he had been developing in his early career. After all, Animal House, Coming to America and Blues Brothers are not thematically in the same vain as a story about the sale of dead bodies. While he might, to some effect in the long run, accomplish one of these goals, I'm sorry to say that for the most part he fails to materialize the latter.
The movie centers around two friends, William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), fast-talking salesmen trying to make a quick buck selling junk to the townspeople of Edinburgh, Scotland. Hare's wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) is depressed at the financial situation that she and her husband face (flat broke), until the day they find one of the lodgers renting a room from their town inn dead. A recent political battle between two high-standing physicians, Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. Alexander Munro (Tim Curry), has lead to qualms about the division of recently deceased bodies to be donated to medical research, with Dr. Munro having imposed a proclamation stating that all dead bodies be delivered to his institute, the College of Physicians. Burke and Hare, quick to latch onto new business opportunities, decide to bring the body over to Dr. Knox, who starts to pay the two for any bodies they happen to bring to his lab, regardless of how they obtain them. The two, along with Lucky, set off on a spree of what amounts to murdering numerous innocent people, selling the bodies to the doctor, and quickly getting rich in the process. Meanwhile, Burke begins financing a production of Hamlet for his new crush, Helen McDougal (Isla Fisher), to star in, without ever explaining where the money being used to finance the play is coming from.
That's pretty much the gist of it, save for a couple of other side stories, such as the competition between Dr. Knox and Dr. Munro to make groundbreaking discoveries, and the involvement of 19th century gangsters in Burke and Hare's new business, though neither really amounts to having any real profound effect on the main story. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what the point of the film as a whole was, except to move from plot point to plot point while interjecting with as many sight gags, tongue-in-cheek jokes, and slapstick humor as possible. It's a little off-putting, mainly because of the subject matter mixed with the tone of the movie. We're talking about two desperate men who kill people for money for seemingly good intentions, but they ARE murdering people. It starts off small with the elderly and homeless, but eventually people are lured to the inn, only to be slaughtered and sold. This is some seriously dark shit. Yet the tone of the movie never wavers from off-beat quirky comedy. The cheap jokes are piled onto every single scene, no matter the gravitas of it. I suppose this would be appropriate for a bad romantic comedy, and I'm assuming this is the kind of thing he did with Blues Brothers 2000, and maybe a few other movies, but it doesn't click here, mostly because though it's advertided as a black comedy, it's really white as day mixed with lots of death and inhumanity.
This is an unfortunate turn for a movie peppered with an amazing cast. Mostly everyone does a fine job with the material they're given, especially Andy Serkis, and nails a lot of the subtler jokes they are given. None of them have very well fleshed out characters though, so they're not exactly deemed with giving a huge amount of depth to the performances. And the misuse of Tim Curry alone deserves a good ripping. It's not often Curry plays a role in a feature film anymore, but when you hear the name, you instantly think you're going to get something compelling and hilarious. Damn you, Landis, for wasting his entire character and debasing him with bad severed foot jokes. Jerk.
There's really no one else to put the blame on for the failing of this movie. John Landis chose to get back into the business, and, as such, he shoulders the responsibility. No, the movie is not terrible. It has redeeming qualities. It's funny in some places, and casually entertaining. You can't, however, call it a success. By the end of it, I didn't remember any of the better parts, and I didn't care to repeat any of it in my mind. It was a cheap joke placed in a nice looking wrapper, and, as such, entirely forgettable. It's time to grow up, Landis, and give the audience something better to sink their teeth into.
Burke and Hare screened at the Fantasia Film Festival. Alex Goldberg hails from Montréal, Québec, and is a Ph.D. in the field of molecular and cell biology. He's an expert in the fields of aging and cancer research and table soccer. His organization, Québec Table Soccer Federation, can be found here.