“Write what you know” is a hackneyed piece of advice – one of many – that’s regularly doled out to aspiring screenwriters, and ironically, these said screenwriters are precisely the type of precocious folks who’ll hear this questionable statement like that and immediately get the urge to take the piss out of it.
U.K.-based writer/director Callum Crawford attempts to do just that in his droll debut feature Degenerates, the story of a writer (played by Crawford) who, feeling that he lacks any real-life experiences that might readily lend themselves to cinematic treatment, embarks on a harebrained scheme to create one for himself.
The results are predictably – but, sometimes, fairly amusingly – disastrous.
Crawford’s character, Casey Vaughn, is a struggling scribe who’s talented enough to land the occasional meeting – and even a rewrite gig – from cantankerous but well-connected British film exec Victor Moseley (Jamie Foreman), but can’t seem to sell the profit-minded producer on his original movie ideas. The reason, Moseley tells him, is that the studios simply won’t make anything that isn’t either a superhero movie or based on a true story.
“…presents himself to the distraught woman as the lead detective on the case and, armed with little more than the knowledge…”
Apparently not a fan of comic-book adaptations, Casey takes to scouring the internet for a news story worthy of a ripped-from-the-headlines drama, and the search quickly points him toward a local missing-persons case: the ongoing search for a 15-year-old girl who disappeared on her way home from school. He soon finds himself at the home of the missing girl’s mother (Anna Acton), and, before you can say “inciting incident,” he makes the rash decision to take a more hands-on approach to the story: he presents himself to the distraught woman as the lead detective on the case and, armed with little more than the knowledge he’s gleaned from the big-screen thrillers he’s written and seen, vows to bring her daughter back safely.
That’s a gloriously terrible idea on Casey’s part, but it’s not too shabby a hook for a movie – the one that the character envisions writing once he’s solved the case and, in turn, the one that Crawford has brought to the screen. Of course, as Casey well knows, you can’t have an entertaining caper without a cast of colorful supporting characters, so his first order of business is to recruit one – much more for the flavor they’ll add to his story than for the ostensible skills they bring to the investigation. His motley bunch includes Maureen (Annette Badland), a genial-looking sixtysomething who moonlights as a black-market drug dealer, Naomi (Lauren Douglin), a petty thief prone to bursts of casual violence, and adolescent Peter, a wide-eyed innocent who serves as the group’s lookout.
Degenerates is nearly halfway over by the time Casey and his team start their investigation, and indeed, there’s not a lot of substance to the film’s central mystery – maybe that’s part of the point, revealing to Casey that even a seemingly scintillating adventure can be just as boring and frustrating as average day-to-day life. Thus, much of the movie is given over to the alternately good-natured and darkly tinged bantering and bickering that ensues between the various members of Casey’s crew, which is most often just engaging enough to carry the film through its slowly paced second and third acts.
“…displays some solid comedic timing in the lead role, and even the film’s compelling cold open…”
That assessment actually holds true for a lot of Degenerates, which is perhaps best characterized as a movie replete with “just enoughs”: the low-key humor is just witty and twisted enough to pull the film out of innocuous sitcom territory; Casey himself is just charismatic enough a protagonist to maintain viewer sympathy despite how self-serving and dishonest his plan is; the satire of modern popular-movie trends and the tortured life of writers is just incisive enough to elicit a knowing smile or two from film-savvy viewers (though Adaptation. this certainly isn’t). There are brief flashes of the darker, cleverer, and/or more madcap movie Crawford might have made throughout, but most often, Degenerates seems content to play somewhat like a lesser Coen Brothers comedy (The Ladykillers comes to mind), though it largely lacks the zippy energy and outré touches that regularly brought even the least successful of those films to life.
Crawford, for his part, displays some solid comedic timing in the lead role, and even the film’s surprisingly compelling cold open (it’s actually a scene from one of Casey’s screenplays) proves that he’s got chops behind the camera, as well. The standout performance, though, is undoubtedly Badland’s; the balance she strikes between Maureen’s grandmotherly demeanor and her gleefully mean and mischievous streak (which occasionally manifests itself in a bit of perfectly delivered profanity) is one of Degenerates‘ most obvious highlights.
It’s moments like the ones in which Badland shines that make Degenerates worth a look, even if the film never quite does justice to its clever concept. If nothing else, Crawford has at least avoided the cringe-worthy missteps that a movie about a screenwriter, written by a first-time screenwriter could have easily fallen victim to – if he is, in fact, just “writing what he knows” here, he’s not being smug or pretentious or bitter about it. One looks forward to his next effort, with the hope that it branches out a bit from the film-industry trappings he’s dealt with here.
Here’s an idea: maybe a superhero movie?
Degenerates (2018) Written and directed by Callum Crawford. Starring Callum Crawford, Annette Badland, Lauren Douglin, James Sanbrook, Jamie Foreman, Anna Acton, Gordon Peaston, Carla Dixon.
6 out of 10