Ah, New Year’s Eve. A time for reflection, reunions and resolutions. It’s also a time for arguments, bust ups and chaos. At least, that’s what takes place in Ben Wheatley’s dark comedy/family drama, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Shot on a shaky handheld camera, with a talk-heavy script written in collaboration between director and cast, the film is a blast but does become a little tiresome towards the end, like all good parties. The film was originally teased with the hilarious but less marketable title Colin You Anus, Wheatley’s sporadically amusing comedy drama has a lively rhythm and some fine performances, but there’s a little too much going on and far too many characters to keep a track of.
Happy New Year, is a tense ensemble drama, which follows the Burstead family as they countdown to the new year in a mansion that eldest son Colin, (played by the amazingly sarcastic Neil Maskell) has hired out. His father and mother (Bill Paterson and Doon Mackichan) have come along, in an attempt to ask Colin for a loan after getting into some financial issues. Colin’s mother has an accident very early on which leaves her nursing a twisted ankle, sipping gin and complaining for the rest of the day as everyone fusses over her. Is it any wonder, that Colin can’t help but snap at the other people around him?
It isn’t only his mother who is causing a headache for Colin. His sister Gini ( Hayley Squires) has gone ahead and behind Colin’s back invited someone who Colin really despises, the black-sheep brother David whom Colin hasn’t seen for five years, played by Sam Riley. Other family members and friends turn up, such as Hayley Squires, Charles Dance, Asim Chaudry, Mark Monero and Sarah Baxendale, all of which bring along their own woes and issues. Scene by scene, this film is simmering with a crackling atmosphere of impending doom. The film’s most pointed moments involve Riley’s David, who has arrived with his partner, elegantly played by Alexandra Maria Lara, and th film’s tone becomes far more serious.
Happy New Year may not translate far beyond the U.K., where after a, following limited theatrical run, it will be televised on the BBC over the December holiday season. It’s a smart marketing strategy for a film that should play perfectly as a piece of counter-programming to cheerful sickly Christmas TV fare. One suspects that all too many viewers will relate to the way Wheatley mordantly unpicks the perils of forced family gatherings. Certainly, if anyone in the extended Burstead clan had any Christmas spirit to begin with, it has long left them by time 31st December rolls around. Nobody especially wants to attend the New Year’s festivities that eldest son Colin has arranged. Wheatley’s clever script manages to capture that mixture of obligation, score-settling and good old-fashioned family guilt that drives the characters to act the way that they do.
Some of the talent is wasted, and become lost in the large ensemble. Actors Joe Cole and Peter Ferdinando are among those who are wasted whose status in the family never comes fully into focus and towards the end of the film they become forgotten. Still, aside from the odd grumble here and there, this is a fine film. Laurie Rose’s roving handheld camera flows between rooms like a forgotten party guest trying to find a place (or at least a place to hide) in the action, catching disrupted snippets of conversation along the way. Likewise, Wheatley’s editing is deceptive in its casual fragmentation, carefully assembling half-revelations as the film’s narrative progress, like a hung over person trying to make sense of the night before.
Wheatley’s film is a strangely enjoyable depiction of the ins and outs of a dysfunctional family that many may relate to. It’s like watching a pot of water boiling over, building up to an explosive conclusion. The performances are naturalistic and strong, especially Maskell’s, who seems perfect in this role as a man who is struggling to contain his rage and goes for a jog when he gets too stressed. Clint Mansell’s sparsely deployed, folk-tinged score also lends an extra layer to the tense atmosphere. Indeed the ingredients are here for a classic family drama, but Wheatley’s tentative first foray into the realm of adult drama doesn’t quite have the emotional punch that it could have had.