The wickedly sly British comedy "Clockwise" (selected theaters) is so funny that it becomes quite literally painful to behold and has you begging for mercy for its luckless hero. As pompous as he is, underneath he's really no better or worse than the rest of us, a man in whom decency and dedication blend with naked pride and ambition.
Which is precisely the point that Monty Python's John Cleese, screenwriter Michael Frayn and director Christopher Morahan make with such unrelenting glee. "Clockwise" marks a confident, uncompromising film debut for both Moran, director of the TV serial "The Jewel in the Crown," and Frayn, a seasoned novelist, playwright, TV writer and documentarian.
With a Hitler mustache and a jaw clenched and jutted, Cleese sallies forth grandly as the looming, stentorian-voiced Brian Stimpson, the first headmaster of an ordinary high school "in all of history," as he puts it, to be elected chairman of the coming headmasters conference.
Stimpson is fanatic about punctuality as only a reformed late comer can be. "The first step to knowing who we are is where we are and when we are!," he exclaims to one of his victims. Where and when Stimpson is to be, once he's finished his morning ritual of chastising the laggardly and otherwise errant, is at the train station, catching the 10:25 to Norwich for that all-important conference. But he's tripped up on one of the oldest semantic confusions in the English language when he and a porter mix up right meaning correct with right meaning the opposite of left.
The domino effect comes swiftly and thunderously as a tidal wave. By the time he's actually off to Norwich he has on his tail, thanks to an inspired chain reaction of misunderstandings, a frenzied assortment of people, including two sets of cops. He even crosses path with an old girlfriend (Penelope Wilton), who hasn't seen him in 20 years--and soon has every reason to wish she'd never see him again.
The getting there is glorious in its sheer hilarity, shrewd off-the-wall touches and gorgeous scenery and ancient towns. With the wind knocked out of his sails, Stimpson seems quite human, a victim of the self-preoccupation and self-importance, impatience and condescension, to which all of us are susceptible. Who could not identify with him when he's cursed with a bank of treacherous, malfunctioning pay phones and very little change in his pocket?
Be warned, however: Cleese et al. have no intention of sending us home with a self-contented smile on our faces. In its final 20 minutes "Clockwise" deliberately crosses over a disturbing moral line when the student (Sharon Maiden) who's been chauffeuring him gets carried away by the sheer adventure that has overtaken her, and Stimpson discovers just how badly he really wants to get to that conference. Once, when all seems especially bleak, he exclaims, "It's not the despair! I can handle the despair--it's the hope !"
On first thought, "Clockwise" seems the all-too-familiar instance of the film that has such a clever premise that there's just no way it can follow through with a satisfying finish. Actually, the ending of "Clockwise" (rated PG for some adult implications) is coldly, logically correct, but its effect is so chilling that it's very easy to miss the message, as simple, timeless and universal as it is: moderation in all things.