Annie Griffin is probably best known for Channel Four’s superb The Book Group, a dark, literate and layered comedy about an American writer living in Glasgow. Blending brilliant characterisation with a nice line in cum-related humour, it was truly innovative stuff, if a little too offbeat for some, but it never really made the impact of something like The Office; a shame as Griffin is just as adept at injecting her comic scenarios with poignancy and moments of a truly toe-curling nature as Ricky Gervais.
Festival sees Griffin shifting her focus from Glasgow to Edinburgh and, more specifically, to those hot, wired weeks in August when the city is taken over by comedians, actors, journalists, tourists, theatre-goers and hangers-on: the Edinburgh Festival. Adopting a suitably Altman-esque approach – numerous characters, multiple interlinking plotlines – this is a sharp, accurate if perhaps over-ambitious portrait of life on the Fringe.
Filmed at last years festival, Griffin gives us the street buzz, the copious flyers and the bleak beauty of the city, but never lets this distract her from the real business of picking apart the monstrous egos and wading through the insecurities and the bitterness that make up the Edinburgh experience.
This is a real ensemble piece and all the performances are strong but Lucy Punch stands out as a sexually manipulative stand-up, destined for success even though shes better at delivering hand-jobs than one-liners. As does the wonderful Daniela Nardini, playing it suitably cool as a cynical BBC Scotland reporter. Chris O’Dowd is highly appealing, and charmingly desperate, as an Irish Edinburgh veteran still hankering after the festivals big comedy prize after nine years. And, as the odious Sean Sullivan, a successful character comic being lured to LA, Green Wings Stephen Mangan is also excellent – his character distinctly reminiscent of a number of real-life famous comedians – but its Raquel Cassidy as his put-upon PA Petra who leaves the biggest impression.
Mirroring the way that comedy has come to dominate the Fringe, the narrative backbone of the film is provided by the judging of the comedy awards, the Perrier in all but name. Fortunately Griffin also finds the time for a few digs at theatre side of things – the earnest one-woman show about Dorothy Wordsworth is particularly amusing.
But while these are necessary elements for any film about the Fringe, it soon starts to feel like shes trying to do too much. Just as the festival is too sprawling to get a handle on during one visit, theres just too many ideas flying around for one film and, as a result, a subplot featuring Amelia Bullmore as a wealthy wife who achieves some strange liberation through renting her elegant city-centre flat to a Canadian theatre troupe gets rather swallowed up. Another strand featuring a troubled priest appears to have drifted in from another film altogether.
This is a very cliquey comedy, perhaps destined to appeal only to existing fans of Griffins writing and people familiar with the Edinburgh experience. It also contains some particularly explicit sex scenes which may well alienate some viewers. Seeing a comedian, whose stage-show involves thrusting his hand up a puppet, having something similar done to him by a large tattooed man while he mantras “I am funny,” though an audacious piece of writing, is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is, however, achingly funny; critical in a film which takes time to really consider what it is exactly that makes for good comedy.
Griffin has made a very entertaining film, one which, despite everything, does not feel particularly anti-Edinburgh. The festival comes out of it sounding appalling and appealing in equal measure; it will put no-one off heading up to Scotland come August. If you adored The Book Group you will not be disappointed.