By Jessica Baxter | June 4, 2011

“Burke and Hare” has all the ingredients for a delicious film: Legendary director John Landis (“American Werewolf in London”, “Animal House”), Simon Pegg (“Spaced”, “Shaun of the Dead”), Gollum, other notable “Spaced” alums, murder most foul and Tim m***********g Curry. Perhaps everyone involved is past their sell-by date because the resulting film is completely unpalatable.

The so-called black comedy tells the semi-factual tale of two dimwitted Irish con men who take a job fetching cadavers for an anatomy professor (Tom Wilkinson) in 19th century Edinburgh. Their employer is racing against another doctor in an attempt to create a complete, anatomically correct map of the human body for His Majesty the King. Because of the profitability and immediacy of the work, Burke (Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) quickly decide to stop messing about in graveyards and start making their own fresh cadavers…with wacky results!

I’m concerned about Simon Pegg. There was a time when he was considered the Tyler Durden of pop culture nerds. He quoted like we wanted to quote. He fought zombies like we wanted to fight zombies. But while Edgar Wright, his Project Nerdom partner in crime, kept his integrity intact, Pegg became the British Kevin James. His transformation began somewhere around “Run, Fatboy, Run”, metastasized with “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” and has been fully realized with “Burke and Hare.” If Dickensian ghosts were to have visited Simon Pegg on the set of “Hot Fuzz,” the Future Ghost would have shown him this movie. Though, to be fair, Pegg is not the only one to blame.

“Burke and Hare” is a ridiculous mess. The “jokes” are juvenile. Prat falls abound. People empty chamber pots onto the heads of other people. There is a metric ton of humping, a spit take and slapstick galore. It insults in the intelligence of its audience with erroneous allusions to MacBeth. It dips into genre parody territory with modern gags like a discerning doorman at the pub and a crime boss in a pimp vest. Characters take credit for prematurely inventing modern-timey things. It’s “British Movie” minus a Wayans brother.

The actors also seem to have checked their souls at the door. Every performance is as fish-limbed and dead-eyed as the next. The women in the film (Isla Fisher as Burke’s theatrical love-interest and Jessica Hynes as Hare’s shrewish wife) are only there for eye candy and scapegoating respectively. I thought that all British people were born with the ability to switch effortlessly from accent to accent but Pegg’s Scottishy-Irish brogue is almost as confusing as whatever it is Isla Fisher is doing (and Home Girl is from Scotland).

If you’re going to make a movie in which your protagonists are actually killing innocent people, you better make them as lovable as a bag of kittens. Barring that, some over-the-top viscera could make up the difference. But “Burke and Hare” fails at every turn. It’s a romantic comedy without jokes or romance. It’s a horror film without the horror. In short, it’s stupid as hell and frankly, I’m embarrassed for everyone involved.

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  1. Mike, comedy is so subjective. It’s difficult to know what will make someone laugh. I know I barely laughed at this film, but you clearly had a different experience. Meanwhile, there are several comedies I love that don’t seem to work for others. I tend to like things a bit more surreal and irreverent like “Pootie Tang” and “The Jerk”.

  2. Christopher Giardino says:

    Hmmmm…was hoping to like this and see a semi-return to form for Landis who has made so many classic comedies. Even with newer blood, it seems like he never really can go home. Still curious though.

  3. Mike Hodge says:

    I had an entirely different take on “Burke and Hare.” I felt the slapstick ribald comedy was spot on and had many laugh out loud moments (at least I was laughing out loud). I would actually view this film as a highlight of the festival combining serial murder and comedy in a smart and funny way.

    I liked Isla Fisher’s character dreaming of a better life and inspiring Burke’s hapless criminal activities. It gave the character of Burke a humanity needed to keep the comedic elements funny and gross but not losing the sympathy of the audience (most of the audience, at least).

    The movie was over the top and mixed authentic life in the 1840s (when it could be played for laughs) with modern anachronisms (also positioned for laughs).

    I liked the film better than “Paul” and would encourage anyone intrigued by the conflicting opinions to watch the film and see which side you come down on.

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