Sci-fi comedies rarely have a weight of expectation like Absolutely Anything does. A script 20 years in the making. The first movie from Monty Python’s Terry Jones in decades. A cast made up of British comedy icons. A premise that allows.... well, absolutely anything. And it fails to do anything significant (or funny) with any of it.
Spoilers ahead... not that it really matters.
To sum it up simply, Absolutely Anything is basically Bruce Almighty but with a sci-fi twist: a council of aliens (voiced by Monty Python stars Terry Jones, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin) decides to destroy Earth. But before they can do so, they have to conduct a test—a single random human will be granted godlike powers allowing them to do anything they wish for 10 days with a wave of their hand. If the human uses the power for good, the Earth is saved from destruction. If they’re vain and selfish, the Earth is doomed.
The target? Initially, Sarah Palin—the closest Absolutely Anything comes to a timely joke, despite it being a joke that’s a good couple of years out on the relevance scale—before settling on average and pleasant™ English teacher Neil Clarke (Simon Pegg). Seriously, the film hammers home how average and nice Neil is that at some point they may as well have replaced Simon Pegg with a cardboard cutout that’s had “average and pleasant” scribbled over the chest.
What ensues is about as typical as you’d expect. Neil starts off vain, wishing himself simply conveniences like clothes that magically dress him every morning, the ability for his dog Dennis to speak—Robin Williams in what is, sadly, his final work—and, of course, the chance to get closer to his attractive downstairs neighbor Catherine (Kate Beckinsale). It then continues as you’d expect: wacky hijinks ensue as Neil’s wishes alternate between success and comical disaster (almost always in the vein of him being loosely descriptive with his wish, only to go “No, I didn’t mean that, I meant this...”) before ultimately the film goes full rom-com as Neil uses his powers on Catherine to make her interested in him, then she actually becomes interested in him because the movie needs a happy ending, and the aliens decide that yes, Neil really is average and pleasant™ enough to guarantee the Earth’s safety.
Absolutely Anything would be relentlessly forgettable if not for the fact that it’s the low-budget sci-fi comedy equivalent of a teenager in school who knows they’re smart enough to be an A-grade student, but instead puts in the minimum amount of effort to reach a passing grade and nothing more. I mean, look at this cast:
That is a damn cast and a half right there. And yet, everyone is either woefully underused or has a plot that goes nowhere. Pegg is perhaps the most egregious offender, on auto-pilot in that sort of “hapless Brit man-child” archetype that he’s been playing since Spaced—chopped and mixed and reheated into a middling paste, never rising above or questioning said man-childishness as he so brilliantly did in World’s End. Beckinsale gets nothing to do as Pegg’s romantic foil. Eddie Izzard and Joanna Lumley in particular feel spectacularly wasted; Izzard has a few good scenes as the reserved Headmaster at Neil’s school, finding himself in increasingly outlandish situations as Neil’s powers go awry, but there’s so little of him that it feels pointless. Lumley plays a book critic at Catherine’s place of work that doesn’t read the books she critiques (that’s the pay off. It’s just that joke, scraped over a few too many scenes), one-note and barely there.
It’s telling that it’s Robin Williams, lending his voice to the biscuit-and-humping-mad Dennis the Dog, who seems to be having the most fun—but even then, it’s phoning in a familiar performance he had done so many times over his career. Like that snotty teenager in school, you want to grab these people by shoulders, vigorously shaking them and scream “you can do so much more!”—that is, when you’re not checking your watch and wondering when it’ll all be over. A pretty damning statement considering the film is just shy of an hour-and-a-half long. All that disappointment and watch checking leaves time for barely anything else to happen, and you almost feel thankful for it.
The underachieving continues in the film’s sci-fi leanings and its premise in general. Despite Neil’s alien powers giving him a blank canvas to do anything he likes, the lack of imagination with which they’re used instead tightens like a vice around the film, feeling startlingly limited as it trots out rote scenario after rote scenario. There’s no consequences to Neil’s choice to use his power; he can just as easily correct his mistakes as he can make them, and does so regularly, so there’s no dramatic weight. There’s no questioning as to why he suddenly capable of godlike power, because Absolutely Anything is a film about getting vaguely close to considering asking these interesting questions, before promptly deciding against it.
And sometimes it genuinely considers trying. There’s moments where Neil contemplates whether he has the right to take away the ability for his dog to speak after realizing that all his dog talks about is biscuits and humping, or when he raises the moral quandary of whether his powers should be used to exert romantic control over a woman, something the movie does with both Neil himself as well as one of Neil’s teaching colleagues (played by Sanjeev Bhaskar). Not only does Neil do that second thing anyway after pondering if he has the right—which is kind of gross—but these questions are also briefly asked and then immediately dropped with no recompense. There’s no interesting ethical debate about the use of his powers that shapes Neil into a better man than he was at the start of the film. There’s no actual playing with the science fiction setting to do anything interesting with what should be an interesting premise. Absolutely Anything gives less time to considering these ideas than it gives to an extended sequence where a piece of CGI dog poop flips itself into a toilet, a moment so excruciatingly drawn out it’s like the film thinks it’s its crowning comedic moment. If that’s not damning, I don’t know what it is.
Even with the interesting cast behind it, it’s hard to remember why Absolutely Anything had any expectation attached to it in the first place. It’s nothing but rehashed ideas and a bunch of excellent, funny people aimlessly wandering from scene to scene with little idea of what they’re doing. Even the tone itself doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing, wildly veering between family-fun jokes and dropping several f-bombs (startlingly, it has a rating in the UK that allows children less than 12 see it with an accompanying adult)—the exact sort of juvenile childishness that Pegg himself is increasingly looking to distance himself from.
In the end, Absolutely Anything instils only one thing in its viewer: the desire to do absolutely anything but watch it.
Absolutely Anything is out in the U.K. now. Unfortunately, it is out in U.S. theaters September 4th.