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What Went Wrong With Tamara Drewe?

by Anne Thompson
October 14, 2010 11:08 AM
10 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood

Something went terribly wrong with Tamara Drewe, an entertaining romantic comedy that played well at Cannes from one of the great Brit directors, Stephen Frears, starring hottie-on-the-rise Gemma Arterton. Sony Pictures Classics opened it last weekend to disastrous business: $19,300 on four screens, a $4,825 per-screen average. Here's why.

1. The movie boasted no stars. Art-house moviegoers don't know statuesque Brit beauty Gemma Arterton, who thus far has supplied big-studio eye candy as a Bond girl, a strange Greek goddess in Clash of the Titans and Jake Gyllenhaal's love interest in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Arterton is so busy that she didn't go to Cannes to promote Tamara Drewe, walk the red carpet or fan her own flame; when she came to America briefly to support the film, the nightly talk shows wouldn't have her. Frears made a huge error not casting ANYONE recognizable to lure moviegoers. Dominic Cooper pops in a small, sexy role. Three parts call out for more familiar players than Roger Allam, Tamsin Greig and American theater actor Bill Camp, who is capable but uninspired and could easily have been played by someone more familiar and endearing like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

2. Stephen Frears is out of his zone. Smart-house crowds know what they want from the director: smart, sophisticated dramas like The Deal, The Queen, High Fidelity and Dirty Pretty Things. This movie, adapted from a Posy Simmonds' graphic novel take-off on Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, is a light, romantic, fluffy and bucolic romp of an escapist comedy: far too twee for American audiences. Cheri also indicated a loss of directorial perspective for Frears; the movie starred a jarring mix of Brits and Americans in a French setting that never rang true. (For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Tamara Drewe, and Luke Evans is a discovery--my Cannes flip-cam interview is below.)

3. Dismissive reviews from the LA and NY Times. While the reviews are generally favorable, key critics in the big New York and L.A. markets killed the film there, says SPC's Tom Bernard. The NYT's A.O. Scott wrote: "...there is something shallow and cautious about this film, which strains to maintain a glib, cheery demeanor..."

And the LAT's Robert Abele: "For all its larkish jabs at the emotionally destructive impulses of distracted bourgeois weekenders, the movie feels like something dabbled in, as opposed to thought through." These days, adult quality films are like delicate flowers, easily crushed.

4. Drewe's free-wheeling sexuality. I can't help but wonder if Arterton's Drewe doesn't make audiences a tad uncomfortable. While she's a great-looking girl, Drewe is a heartless careerist who thoughtlessly screws whoever she pleases (including a married man), and isn't very nice, really. Just a thought.

Here's Luke Evans at Cannes:


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Here's the trailer:

10 Comments

  • Lynn | November 12, 2010 6:11 AMReply

    Tamara Drew failed because it was a very poor film. Like many brit films a major disappointment. A poor script, take away bad lanquage little remains. Poorly acted, and badly directed. On the positive side it looks pretty, but so can watching paint dry.

  • David | October 21, 2010 11:28 AMReply

    I thoroughly enjoyed Tamara Drewe when I saw it in Toronto and was annoyed at A. O. Scott review. He actually seemed to like the film but then totally dismissed it at the end. Though Scott is sometimes a perceptive critic, he has also liked some pretty awful movies.

    After reading his glowing review of Hereafter, I knew I would hate it.

    Tamara Drewe is a much better movie than Cheri. I'm glad I saw it. It was also refreshing to see some actors whose work I didn't know. And I agree, Luke Evans is a real find in the movie.

  • Dixon Steele | October 16, 2010 8:51 AMReply

    Arterton's gorgeous, and I've enjoyed Frears' work in the past, but after the godawful CHERI, I too was put off by the bad NYT review. Living in Manhattan as I do, there's just too many other choices.

    And Mary, CHLOE simply isn't comparable, as it had three well-known stars to sell, not to mention, as you point out, a LOT of sex and nudity. TD doesn't, really.

    And that totally soft trailer isn't exactly helping matters either.

  • Tulkinghorn | October 15, 2010 9:56 AMReply

    I liked the review by Deborah Ross, in The Spectator:

    Tamara Drewe is not satirical enough to be a satire, and it’s not well plotted enough to be narratively intriguing, and it’s not funny enough to be an outright comedy.... it did seem that all the things we were meant to be laughing at — writers; pretentious literary types; celebrity-obsessed youngsters — have all been laughed at rather better before.

  • The Pope | October 15, 2010 6:39 AMReply

    It failed because it is a bad film and it is a bad film because Stephen Frears is guilty of lack of quality control. He used to make great picture; The Hit, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Hi-Lo Country. But since High Fidelity then there has been a steady decline with only the occasional blip (Dirty Pretty Things). I mean enjoyable as some people may have found The Queen, does it even hold a candle to ANY of the titles I listed.

  • MW | October 15, 2010 5:34 AMReply

    You can't blame a lack of stars in a film for its failure at the box office, especially these days when Julia Roberts gets blamed for every movie she's in being a disappointment. Stars just don't cut it anymore. And Stephen Frears is a star, anyway. The truth is that if it had a big star in it, it would have cost more, had a bigger release and then been a bigger disappointment.

    I would say that the trailer didn't really do it justice. But, you know, not every film can make a billion dollars. It's a nice, small film.

  • mary | October 15, 2010 3:19 AMReply

    "Dirty Pretty Things" also wasn't the kind of film that Stephen Frears used to make most. I feel that sophisticated audience are more open-minded on watching different kinds of films, and it is why many directors and stars are willing to do indie films for smaller upfront fees (directors can do the kinds of films that major studios would not want them to do; stars can play the kinds of roles that major studios would not want them to play)

    In some ways, I think that SPC did pick the wrong release date. Firstly, I think that SPC should have never opened two films on the same day in the very crowded October. (SPC had also opened “An Education” and “The Damned United” on the same day in October 2009) Secondly, maybe SPC could have picked a better release date that fit Gemma Arterton’s schedule better (not necessary in Fall 2010, since the film doesn't look like an Oscar film on surface) .
    And I agree with you that maybe they could have done better with some other better-known cast members.

  • Sergio | October 15, 2010 2:44 AMReply

    People I know who had seen it didn't like it which made me not so excited about seeing it, the subject matter didn't interest me that much (if I want to see far from the Madding Crowd then I'll see the original John Schlesinger film version with Julie Christie which I have on DVD anyway) and Arterton leaves me cold. I don't even remember her at all in Clash of the Titans or in the Bond film and I found her incredibly annoying in Prince of Persia, where she was also woefully miscast and came off like a snobby, stuck-up British boarding school girl (with an equally snobby and annoying accent) who wondered onto the set by mistake.

  • Anne Thompson | October 15, 2010 1:35 AMReply

    I don't think people know Gemma Arterton outside of England and fanboys (not the Stephen Frears demo). And people know Frears but this isn't what they want him to do. Damned United was a great movie about British Soccer...not of interest stateside. Agree with your assessment on the TD platform/reviews, but you have to wonder if they might not have done better with some other known names in the cast for people to hang onto.

  • mary | October 15, 2010 1:27 AMReply

    For indie standard, Gemma Arterton is a star and Stephen Frears is a known director, so I think that the cast and the director aren't the main reasons why the film flopped. (afterall, SPC's "The Damned United" also flopped in the similar kind of opening, despite of having Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent and screenwriter Peter Morgan)

    Sexuality also wouldn’t be a main reason. In recent years, there were considerable amount of sexual films that opened better than “Tamara Drewe” (including even “Antichrist” and the NC-17 rated ”Lust, Caution”)

    I agree with what Tom Bernard said - “Tamara Drewe” was killed by the surprising bad reviews from the LA and NY Times. SPC planned to open the film in very few theaters and platform the film from there, but this kind of release pattern requires strong support from key critics.

    I guess if SPC had known that “Tamara Drewe” would receive bad reviews from the LA and NY Times, they would not open this film in very few theaters in October (a very crowded time for specialty films). For instance, SPC clearly knew that the erotic film “Chloe” would get mostly terrible reviews; they opened the film in more 300 theaters in March, and the film could still gross a respectable $3 million at domestic box office. On the other hand, SPC also opened the badly-reviewed “CJ7” in 19 theaters in March 2008 (“CJ7” only grossed $207,378 at box office, though.)

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