Near the end of The Inbetweeners 2, the second feature-length tie-in made by the team behind Channel 4’s successful sit-com The Inbetweeners, the four main characters – Will (Simon Bird), Jay (James Buckley), Neil (Blake Harrison) and Simon (Joe Thomas) – become stranded while on holiday in the middle of the Australian outback when their car runs out petrol. Perhaps this a tacit acknowledgement by the writer / director team of Iain Morris and Damon Beesley that their creation has been running on fumes for a considerable amount of time, because while the widescreen exploits of this fantastic four have been commercially successful, creatively-speaking the bottom of the barrel is being scraped here.
The question, of course, is whether we should actually be looking for creative artistry here, when the modus operandi has never really extended much further than providing knob gags, insults and soul-crushing embarrassment in the past. The thing is, though, there’s great skill in crafting a good knob gag, or a memorable and tasteless insult, and you only need to watch the first series of the TV show for several fine examples of comic writing. In this film there are fleeting occurrences of it that will make many long-term fans and plenty of new ones chuckle, but sadly there are not enough to cover a running time north of ninety minutes.
If you missed the first Inbetweeners film, or if you’ve never seen (or heard about) the original TV show, the four characters listed above are teenage friends who attended the same English school and went through the same growing pains, which usually resulted in considerable public embarrassment. Will is smart and sarcastic, Jay constantly lies about his sexual prowess and is responsible for about 75% of the EU’s surplus mountain of insults, Neil is dim-witted but likeable and Simon usually has on-going girlfriend troubles to contend with. The characters and the actors have always dovetailed well with one another, gelling smoothly from the very first episode of the show, and few would have begrudged them or their creators a movie spin-off.
That first spin-off – The Inbetweeners Movie – appeared three years ago, and followed the friends as they enjoyed a hedonistic rite-of-passage lads’ holiday in the resort of Malia on the Greek island of Crete. It was funny at times, although like many half-hour sit-coms converted into feature-length films it sagged way too often, a tell-tale sign that the writers didn’t quite know what to do with their characters in a longer format beyond placing them in an unusual environment and milking that for all it’s worth. The simple act of transporting UK-based TV characters to foreign shores for a cash-in film has been done many times before – Kevin And Perry Go Large, Holiday On The Buses, Are You Being Served? etc. etc. – and very rarely have the results been noteworthy. In fact the comedy-TV-show-to-movie success rate is pretty low generally; in recent years only Borat and In The Loop stand out as having successfully made the transition from small screen to big (at least if we discount animated US shows like The Simpsons and South Park).
Despite its faults, The Inbetweeners Movie became the biggest British box office success of all time (though (a) The King’s Speech surpassed it months later and (b) such accolades must always be viewed with inflation and increasing cinema ticket prices in mind), so the appearance of a sequel was somewhat inevitable. Unfortunately Morris and Beesley simply opt for more of the same, transporting the characters further afield to Australia, where Jay happens to be working in a nightclub as part of a year travelling. (His emails home boast of the trappings that come with being a superstar DJ in Sydney, when in fact he’s working as a toilet attendant).
In something of a rut, the other three decide to travel to Australia to check out Jay’s situation for themselves, but only after the geographically-challenged innocent Neil has deemed the concept of having to fly to the other side of the world to get there as utterly preposterous. Once they arrive and locate their friend, the group sets off on a brief tour, with Will chasing after an old school acquaintance named Katie (Emily Berrington), Jay pining after his ex-girlfriend Jane (Lydia Rose Bewley) and Simon regularly Skyping his psychotic partner Lucy (Tamla Kari). They head north from Sydney to Byron Bay, where they spend some time with obnoxious gap year trustafarian Ben Thornton-Wild (Freddie Stroma) and a few other travellers, before their journey eventually takes them into Australia’s boiling, barren centre.
The journey they take isn’t particularly important, but it allows for several amusing set pieces, and two of these give the film its standout moments: Will’s serenading of Katie at their hostel is as cringe-worthy as it is hilarious, and a later unconventional chase scene in a water park slide also highlights Bird’s considerable comic talents (he plays a similar character in another excellent sit-com, Friday Night Dinner). The writing is at its smartest whenever Will is on screen, in fact, particularly when Beesley and Morris target middle class travellers who cast words like ‘spiritual’ around every thirty seconds while tediously discussing their experiences abroad. Bird gets to deliver a funny rant about the stereotypical backpacking experience, while Buckley – his Jay always ready with a withering insult – surveys one scene full of nouveau hippies and dreadlocked tourists and summarises it with the question ‘Why’s there’s always some c**t with a guitar?’
The ribbing of foreign travellers in Australia is mostly gentle, slightly exaggerated, but rooted in a degree of truth; Australia itself, and Australians, also come in for a bit of stick, though again it’s mainly through accentuating stereotypes (the foursome travel in a tackily-painted car that features Peter Andre’s face and lyrics from his song ‘Mysterious Girl’, for example, though thankfully jokes at the expense of the soap operas Neighbours and Home And Away are few and far between). Amidst all the obvious gags there are one or two subtle and wry observations: the shared history and similarities between England and Australia are hinted at through the dialogue between Jay’s Australian uncle and English father, who trade a series of aggressive barbs with only accents and clothes marking them out as different.
Unfortunately this kind of thing gets lost amidst all the juvenile name-calling, insults and immature behavior. It’s perhaps wrong to criticize The Inbetweeners 2 for being childish, given that the situations and lines that made the TV show so good in the first place were essentially part of a comic study of maturity (or the lack of it), but it somehow seems mis-placed now that these characters have left school and are, to all intents and purposes, adults. I can believe that a schoolkid uses the insult ‘bumder’ (a homophobic mish-mash of ‘bummer’ and ‘bender’), but find it harder to accept someone of 19 or 20 (played by an actor in his late 20s) trotting it out relentlessly.
No-one wants to over-think The Inbetweeners 2, myself included, but if you’re watching the film and it isn’t making you laugh much then it’s natural to wonder why that is. There are some good lines in this film, and some well-staged peaks of lol-dom (particularly from Neil, who has several goofily-funny moments), but there’s way too much of Jay’s obnoxious and offensive statements when the character is old enough to know better and living in the kind of environment where you can’t actually get away with it quite as easily as you would have done at school. Their attitudes toward women haven’t really progressed either, and The Inbetweeners 2 is full of the usual descriptions of ‘birds’, ‘clunge’ and so on. Most people that go to see The Inbetweeners 2 do so because they want to see the embarrassment, they want to be grossed out, and they want to laugh at the word ‘clunge’. Personally I’m bored by it now, and I loved the TV series. You can credibly defend writing this stuff if your intention is for a group of teenage schoolboys to say it, but I think the premise has worn thin now, even if Will remains the on-screen voice of outrage, permanently ashamed and appalled by his friends.
Morris and Beesley have been criticised elsewhere for the way women are portrayed in this film; there are three substantial female characters: one is treated as a sex object throughout, one is portrayed as an unreasonable, cheating bunny boiler and the third is a middle-aged woman whose main contribution is to get her breasts out in public. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the TV show or the first film, I suppose, but it remains disappointing.
The news that the writers and the cast have stated that we will see no more of Jay, Will, Neil and Simon will not come as a shock, either. This is a re-tread of the The Inbetweeners Movie, a pointless cash-in and a classic case of a step-too-far (probably a step-too-far-after-a-step-too-far, in all honesty), and it sounds as though the main people involved are aware of that. At the time of writing it’s the third highest grossing British film of all time, and could well break records before it eventually disappears from cinema screens, so let’s wait and see if it really is the end. I don’t want to be too down on it; there are a fair amount of genuinely funny moments here, but more noticeable is the lack of ambition and the unsuccessful papering over the cracks.
Directed by: Iain Morris, Damon Beesley
Written by: Iain Morris, Damon Beesley
Starring: Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, Blake Harrison, James Buckley
Running Time: 96 minutes