Paul Dood is not a great stage name for a U.S. audience, or really any audience to be fair. And yet schlubby momma’s boy Paul (Tom Meeten) is convinced he has what it takes to make it big. The wannabe pop star’s biggest supporter is mother Julie (June Watson) but she’s clearly on the brink of death, mostly confined to a wheelchair and barely able to catch her breath. Julie desperately wants to be there for Paul’s big audition but, aside from the duo being stumped at every turn by inconsiderate jerks, she can barely keep it together long enough to make it down the road.
Unsurprisingly, not only does Paul’s big moment not go to plan, but poor Julie ends up being a casualty of his hubris. Rather than lying down and feeling sorry for himself, however, Paul decides to take action and fights back against everybody who failed him and his poor mother. In the process, he learns just how special he is, over the course of one very special lunch break. Hence the title of Nick Gillespie’s lively and surprisingly sweet horror-comedy, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you just put your mind to it, eh?
The film actually kicks off with a downbeat Margaret Atwood quote – is there any other kind? – which is an interesting choice that wrong-foots us right off the bat. Paul and Julie’s relationship is intimate and kind, with Mum offering son some “toast and marmalade,” reassuring him “I cut the crusts off!” The last thing Meeten was seen in was the soul-destroying, but remarkable, The Ghoul, so this is an interesting change of scene for him. It’s certainly more fun, though that wouldn’t be difficult. He’s still ghoulish, mind, but the leather pants and sequined outfits fit him well at the same time. Paul is kind of like a glam rock Jarvis Cocker, if you will.
The humor is very British, very awkward, taking in an excruciating trip to the local tea shop, which is run by hardcore weeaboo Johnny Vegas, a run-in with a couple of pervy church workers with bad Irish accents (hopefully done on purpose because otherwise eek, this is a dodgy characterization) and the least helpful railway employee this side of King’s Cross played, naturally, by Steve Oram. The cast of Paul Dood is a parade of beloved British character actors, and Oram, with Alice Lowe – whose brilliant Prevenge was one of the best and darkest horror comedies in years – and Katherine Parkinson making appearances, among others.
As ghastly Yank Jack Tapp, English actor and comedian Kevin Bishop is a real standout. The styling on him is perfection for a dickish YouTube celebrity, from the gauche purple fur coat to the hipster wide brim hat, while Jack’s long-suffering assistant advising him to “remember you’re a nice person” once he realizes Paul is live streaming their interaction is keenly astute. Paul Dood shares certain DNA with Ingrid Goes West, which dealt with a similarly useless character’s unflappable desire to make it big online no matter the cost. Paul is a kinder soul than Ingrid, of course, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a trail of destruction left in his wake.
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What’s immediately striking about the story, which Gillespie co-wrote with Brook Driver and Matthew White, is that it never borders on nasty or mean-spirited. The biggest set-piece takes place at a local shopping center, where Paul ekes out a living in a secondhand store where everybody’s name is affectionately lengthened with a “y” at the end (i.e. Pauly). It’s here where a budding romance with Parkinson’s character is introduced, albeit in a low-key way befitting the two shy types involved. Nothing is overplayed in Paul Dood, even if the action feels low-stakes as a result.
The kills are gory, messy and practically done, however. A death by steamroller is particularly brilliant, though Criss Angel will be stewing if he ever sees it, while a sight gag involving Paul singing into a live grenade is so funny precisely because it goes on way too long. Plenty about Gillespie’s film feels obvious, from the online talent show his protagonist takes part in, to the fact he live-streams everything. Susan Boyle pops up on TV at one point, just in case the vibe they’re going for wasn’t immediately obvious from Paul’s sad sack life – he gets into the bathtub fully clothed after Julie passes, just to drive the point home further.
This is a guy who can’t catch a break to the extent even the hand-dryer doesn’t work when Paul tries to use it, while everybody keeps asking if he’s okay but nobody besides maybe the cleaner harboring a secret crush on him genuinely seems to care about the response. There’s a lot of very specific local detail in Paul Dood, and it’s in these moments the film truly, well, sings. A couple of gossipy old biddies are terrific while the video comments on his streams are hilariously accurate, spam links and all. It’s impressive that Spree was only released a little while ago but feels worlds away from this, despite the similar premises.
The Christchurch shootings weren’t too long ago either, and there’s an ongoing argument about whether these kinds of live-streaming murder movies are appropriate, even when tongue is firmly lodged in cheek but, at the very least, Paul Dood’s main draw isn’t the internet-savvy stuff. If anything, the film could easily work without all that. As with the best internet-adjacent movies, though, there are some great jokes to be made at the expense of the permanently online. Gillespie’s film is very funny and very gory but it’s all in good fun. Despite the ludicrous premise – it’s a busy aul’ lunch break, to be fair – Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break is surprisingly, weirdly sweet, smart and sad. You’ll definitely be a believer in his genius by the end, though.
WICKED RATING: 8/10