A scorned husband and his friends kidnap his wife’s lover to restore his pride.
“Cuckoldry. Such a terrible word for such a terrible thing,” barks one of the many middle-aged, potty-mouthed thugs in Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest —a smashingly acted but dramatically thin expose of men behaving badly that isn’t nearly as revelatory as it seems to think.
Written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (who already mined similar territory with several of the same cast members in 2000’s Sexy Beast ) the film stars Ray Winstone as Colin Diamond, a hulking, sputtering wreck of despair. One night, after 20 or so years of marriage, his wife (Joanne Whalley) utters the three words that every man in love dreads: “I’ve met someone.”
Bearlike and imposing, Winstone has always struck me as the British Gandolfini—a towering figure of menace rendered emotionally accessible by an almost babyish vulnerability. His Colin is first glimpsed lying prone on his trashed living room floor listening to Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” on repeat, proving once and for all that when it comes to heartbreak, even giant gangster-types end up carrying on like Bella from Twilight .
It’s during times like these that a guy needs the support of his friends, so four of Colin’s oldest pals are more than happy to abduct Mrs. Diamond’s new beau (a French waiter played by Melvil Poupaud) and leave the poor sonofabitch bound to a chair with a garbage bag on his head in a conveniently condemned apartment complex. It’s expected that Colin will kill the cuckolding bastard, but nobody’s quite sure what's taking him so long.
So they drink, and they wait, and they banter. Shot in unflattering close-ups, primarily on a single drab and phony-looking set, 44 Inch Chest is a loose collection of obscene, vulgar arias showcasing desperately fearful misogyny. As this extremely long night journeys into day, everybody in the audience might be forgiven for wondering why nobody bothered to save a few bucks and just mount this thing as a stage play.
Luckily Venville’s got some of England’s greatest actors spitting out Mellis and Scinto’s pregnantly-paused, dirty-Pinter prose. In addition to Winstone’s seething fragility, we’ve got Stephen Dillane as a slender, neck-tattooed fountain of vitriol. Tom Wilkinson plays an AARP-aged mama’s boy in a drab Sears catalog jacket, offering casual, nihilistic utterances in an incongruously genteel fashion. An alarmingly spindly John Hurt turns up as the elder of the crew, spewing vitriol about how much better things used to be in the bad old days, before men got so in touch with their goddamned feelings. (A few enlightened interactions make Hurt so apoplectic that he chokes on his dentures.)
Floating above them all is Ian McShane’s Meredith, a sleek, unabashedly gay bad-ass who murmurs his lines in a purring monotone with bemused contempt for everybody else around him. The role is a neat shift from McShane’s legendary fuming cauldron of rage Al Swearengen on HBO’s Deadwood , and he spends most of 44 Inch Chest hovering at the corners of the frames, an eyebrow perpetually raised and cigarette at the ready, appearing eager to return to whatever far more interesting movie he left in order to drop by this dingy place for a little while.
According to IMDB Trivia, the word “fuck” is used 162 times in 44 Inch Chest ’s 95 minutes. [I assume whoever was keeping track of “cunt” lost count and just gave up, as I recall hearing that one far more often.] Beneath all their look-at-me profanity, Mellis and Scinto have little to offer besides the not-exactly-shocking revelation that men who lash out with macho swagger are often just frightened, overgrown little boys. From Husbands to Hurlyburly , this topic has been explored with far greater depth and complexity, not to mention savvier structure.
Cramping a bunch of guys in a crummy-looking room waiting for their friend to kill somebody might sound like a good premise, but where do you go from there? This is a situation, not a story. ■