Happy New Year Colin Burstead Review

It’s the tried and true experiment: stick a dysfunctional family in a big house for a day and see what happens. When done well, it can be a like a cathartic claustrophobic symphony. But Ben Wheatley‘s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead doesn’t pack a punch.

This particular story of family dysfunction is set in the grand Cumberland House in Dorset, also referred to by its characters as a castle, Burstead Hall and “fucking Downton Abbey.” It’s not exactly a bottle episode, because we do see glimpses of Colin (Neil Maskell), his Mum Sandy (Doon Mackichan) and his sister’s Gini’s houses (Hayley Squires), but not enough to get a sense of how differently they all live. With such a large ensemble and diversity of personalities, Happy New Year fails to flesh them out.

If Wheatley’s High Rise was a chaotic mess, overwhelmed by the demands of the J.G Ballard book, and Free Fire was a fun, but tiresome 90 minute gun fight, then Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is a stripped down, but disappointing family drama – like a souffle made with all the right ingredient but not given enough time to rise. And its lack of a clear resolution isn’t the problem. In fact, a family drama that did have one would be highly suspicious.

No, the main problem with Happy New Year is one of pacing. Running slightly over 96 minutes, the film feels both too short to get to the meat of the drama and long enough that it’s exhausting. It’s as filled to the brim with dialogue as a screwball comedy, but without the wit. The credits suggest that much of the dialogue was improvised. Though the gifted ensemble play off each other well and have moments of inspired honesty, the editing does them no favours. In fact, most of the scenes are intercut with other ones. Instead of creating a network of drama spread throughout the household, it comes across as impatience. Sometimes it’s worth lingering on the smoke curling out of a barrel, instead of cutting to the next gunshot.

In the first scene, it’s made clear that one member of the Burstead clan is not welcome. And yet, he has been invited, without anyone else’s knowledge or consent. Hints are dropped throughout as to what lead to this falling out. But by the time that David (Sam Riley) shows his face and we find out what it is that he did, it’s almost underwhelming. And it’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments. The gin fueled family’s banter, with its confusing array of regional accents, can be thrilling to watch…when it doesn’t cut to another scene straight away.

The family is driven and paralyzed by its desire to get along. Hasn’t everyone been in the middle of a chicken slaughter disguised as a family reunion, and thought to themselves “can’t we just all get along?” Well, then you would be much like Colin Burstead, the do-gooder of the family who forks out a load of cash to pay for the family’s New Year holiday stay. Save for the opening shot, in which he takes a deep inhale of vape, he spends most of the film running around putting out fires in every room, though his motivations becomes clearer when confronted by his siblings in the latter half of the film. He seeks credit for bringing the family together, but avoids spending an extended period of time with any of them. In a sense, Maskell seems to be the closest thing to a surrogate. He moves from room to room, closing doors behind him and opening ones he wished he hadn’t.

It’s one thing for a drama to not be propelled forward by drama, so much as wading in it. A family portrait about a family that can’t imagine what getting on would look like. But with so many implausible clashes and a dead-end subplots, the film really does feel like a missed opportunity. Characters are suggested, but they never become three dimensional. There’s a cross-dressing grandfather with a terminal illness, played by Charles Dance, a suicidal unemployed friend of the family, a caterer with two exes at the New Year’s Eve party, etc.

If anything, the film feels like an extended television pilot. And in fact, Wheatley has said that he is developing a TV series around the characters in the film. Perhaps that’s become the new methodology: make a feature length proof of concept for cheap and if the public responds well enough, make a TV show out of it. I hope that the TV show, if it does happen, is less directionless and overstuffed than the film. But TV series don’t have to be second drafts. I would much rather sit through a longer film if I felt like it was going somewhere. After all, there’s a reason Robert Altman movies are so long.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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