'What We Did on Our Holiday'
If nothing else, ‘What We Did on Our Holiday’ is a strange little movie that never quite plays out like you’d expect. Loosely adapted from a popular British sitcom about parents struggling to keep up with their kids, the movie starts off feeling like a decent big screen comedy and then spirals off into something infinitely more interesting in the second act. Unfortunately, it’s such a wild departure from the starting point that the filmmakers are never quite able to pull things together for the conclusion. At least the movie qualifies as a pleasant surprise for a while.
Rosamund Pike (‘Gone Girl’) and David Tennant (‘Doctor Who’) star as Abi and Doug, the neurotic heads of a family falling apart at the seams. There’s a divorce headed their way, which their three children know about but have been instructed to never discuss publicly. That vow of childish silence is put to the test when the family piles into the car for a family holiday in Scotland to visit granddad on his birthday. That granddad is Billy Connolly, with all his name implies. He’s a naughty yet wise old man on the brink of death who identifies more in his autumnal years with his grandchildren than his children. As Doug and Abi increase their bickering circle to include a few equally neurotic siblings and in-laws, grandpa Gordie takes the kids out for a day at the beach, which is cut short unexpectedly by a shocking event with bizarrely hilarious consequences.
Co-writers/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins start ‘What We Did on Our Holiday’ as a loose adaptation of their TV series ‘Outnumbered’. Essentially, that show was rooted in improv sessions between experienced adult actors and inexperienced children to pull out the type of weird and wild dialogue that only youngins can muster. Pike and Tennant are wonderful in these sequences, taking whatever the kids say in stride and also bickering it up with a palpable sense of marital tension. The directing style works wonderfully for the youngsters, who deliver some shriekingly funny lines that could never be written by anyone with the self-consciousness of an adult. At its best, the film is both cripplingly funny and frightfully truthful, serving up the type of laughs that stick in your throat because the sequences are painfully and uncomfortably familiar.
Yet it’s Connolly who steals the show, playing a man with terminal cancer. He finds real pain in small moments, while also delivering an almost Buddhist, childlike calm while playing with the kids. He’s a revelation and his character sparks off a wild second act twist that Hamilton and Jenkins take to hilariously inappropriate heights. It’s difficult to discuss without giving the game away, but suffice to say that within a few minutes, the movie transforms out of big screen sitcom mode and into something that is both bleakly funny and twistedly touching. It’s a bit of a jaw-dropper that the filmmakers handle with great care and wit that takes their movie to another level.
Unfortunately, Hamilton and Jenkins don’t quite know where to go after their wild mid-point climax. It’s such a jarring moment that the movie has to shift genres to conclude, and unfortunately the filmmakers settle into a certain mushy brand of maudlin British sentimentalism that almost undoes allof the good work of the previous hour. Perhaps they got scared of pushing their ideas too far, or perhaps the producers sat everyone down and reminded them that they were making a populist family movie and had to find an ending even if it was inappropriate.
It’s a real shame that the folks behind ‘What We Did on Our Holiday’ lost the courage of their convictions and didn’t end the movie 20 minutes earlier. Had they done that, they would have delivered a delightfully twisted movie for the whole family that reached the typical life lessons through an almost unimaginably oddball way. Unfortunately, everyone got nervous and started underlining and overwriting everything that made the movie special, until it felt conventional again. It’s still a perfectly decent British family romp, just one that will disappoint those who can see how close it came to becoming something truly special.