Dir/scr. Suzie Halewood.UK. 2008. 85mins
The subversive sting of Borat is blended with the heart-warming sentiment of Jim Sheridan’s InAmericain Bigga Than Ben: A Russian’s Guide To Ripping Off London. Suzie Halewood’s disarmingly-breezy adaptation of the controversial Bol’she Bena diaries was one of the few stand-out titles in the new Under The Radar section at the recentEdinburghInternational Film Festival. Swipe has acquired theUKrights and is planning a September theatrical release for a film that should find support from a hip, younger audience who enjoy the documentaries of Morgan Spurlock and Chris Waitt and like their comedy served with an edge. Star Ben Barnes’s high profile post-Prince Caspian will do no harm in drumming up a modicum of international interest.
In true Borat fashion, Bigga Than Ben begins as a freewheeling, politically-incorrect account of two innocents aboard that is no less hilarious for being obvious in the targets of its humour. Spiker (Andrei Chadov) and Cobakka (Ben Barnes) are two self-proclaimed ‘pieces of Moscow scum’. Intent on dodging the military draft, they head for London, lured by its reputation as a haven for fraudsters. Soon they are making the most of phoney credit cards, stolen mobile phones and every scam known to humankind. There is a good deal of wit in their naive wonder at a nation so gullible it even offers a cashback facility at supermarket checkouts.
Bristling with energy and cheeky charm, Bigga Than Ben succeeds in making Spiker and Cobakka sympathetic, a considerable feat considering they are not the kind of people you would want to take up residence in your garden shed, as they do in one of many temporary living arrangements. Their dwindling reserves are signalled by amounts of money appearing in the bottom left hand of the screen. An incomprehensible conversation with an Irishman is interrupted as Spiker demands a subtitles button. There are bursts of animation and the duo speak to directly to camera, noting that one situation has to be explained twice ‘for American audiences.’
Satirising both the trusting nature and racist views of the British, Bigga Than Ben treads confidently through racial stereotyping, provoking guilty laughter along the way. It begins to run out of steam after the first hour but regains momentum as it takes a mores serious turn and Cobakka realises that this is not the life he wants. ‘Where ever they go Russians tend to crap all over the planet,’ he concludes.
The lightness of touch begins to desert Suzie Halewood, though, as the film shifts gear into a morality tale but there is enough residual affection for Spiker and Cobakka that the film achieves a measure of genuine poignancy.
Ben Barnes cuts a rather lacklustre figure when cast as the conventional hero in Prince Caspian but in Bigga Than Ben he is revealed as a charismatic screen presence. His Cobakka is charming, good-hearted and sports a convincing Russian-in-exile accent. He also has a good rapport with the equally-endearing Andrei Chadov. Together the two actors create a believable relationship that lies at the heart of an enjoyable film where two Harold and Kumar-style mates eventually emerge as heartbreakers in the tradition of Of Mice And Men’s George and Lennie.
Bigga Than Ben Productions
44 (0) 20 7424 7280
Paul E Francis