*Spoiler Warning: plot details stripped bare and blow-dried below*
Bob the Butler is a kids movie that's clearly cool for grown-ups to like too. It's possibly such random moments as the undeniably exciting sighting of Brooke Shields naked and swimming in a blue lagoon (oh hang on, wrong movie - I mean, Brooke Shields naked and standing in an after-shower, full-body, blowdryer in one of the film's most eagerly expected, 'unexpected' moments) that makes this kids movie, well; different to Disney!
So there she stands; the mistress of the house - hands barely covering rude bits, as butler Bob looks on like a startled guppy fish, clutching a very upright feather duster like a loaded weapon in one hand, struck paralysed in terror at being in the wrong place at the very wrong time - "you don't get that working as a burger flipper" he says, closing the bathroom door after him, having being screamed at to "get out". The inclusion of some well-judged crudeness probably adds to this film being a big boys and girls must-have as much as it is a groovy one for all the littler boys and girls out there to laugh along with - but don't worry Mr and Mrs Concerned Parent out there, if any film is also going to help your kids come to terms with: being an outsider; feeling lonely; being shorter than anyone else in class or coping with a mum in the middle of a modern-life, mid-life crisis - this is the one to watch. We all need a bit of Bob in our lives - if only we could all afford him.
It's Tom Green though who takes the star role and steals the freak show as the languid, totally hopeless, big-hearted 'Bob Tree'; a man working his way through the Yellow Pages of job-search. Green makes the role a memorable one, and unpredictable too; we don't really know whether he's smart and knowing in his stupidity or just stupid. There's strong support too from a twitchy, slightly psychopathic Simon Callow (all achingly-English and butlery and fully stereotyped but still quite, quite, demented and a man clearly best avoided dear boy) as 'Mr Butler, a butler from a long line of butlers..'.
Sure, it's not Callow's finest role, I mean - come on! - but he plays the part of a barmy British trainer of butlers with relish and barely-concealed hatred (very funny when he lists the duties a butler has to his adopted family; we know they wash and iron and cook and probably end up changing the nappies, dressing 'the master' and acting as turbulent lovelife confidante before, eventually, turning to drink). It's an increasingly wistful, school-of-hard-knocks kind of desperation and disaffection with this way of life that Mr Butler 'from a long line of butlers' has been bred into, that sees him seethe with imprisonment in this way of life, when he is supposed to be all upbeat about the role and inspiring - a man clearly at the end of his tether and a tether that's ripe and ready to snap.
For a cameo appearance, Simon Callow injects a lot of pathos into the role, that seems to spread to the rest of the cast. The children of the family Bob gets assigned to all have issues, but they aren't as mawkish as you might imagine, and there's some fairly tear-welling moments - a nice touch has the daughter (Tess, played by Genevieve Buechner) fall out with her goth friend (Valerie Tian as Sophie) into the bad crowd; the posh fashion-conscious cheerleaders, typical roles reversed here. The fully pierced and jet black-dressed outsider (the Fairuza Balk from The Craft-kind) is the one to aspire with, while the good girls (the Oliver Newton-John from Grease-kind) clearly the ones who screw you up and lead you into a life of petty underage crime.
The shoplifting scene that Tess swiftly falls into is stark and easy and less played for laughs. The son, Bates (played by Benjamin Smith) is ignored at school basketball team selection because of his height; Bob tries to pull strings. Bob knows everyone - he's had so many jobs and been sacked so nicely from every one that he has more friends in town that the mafia has buddies. While he can only pull those strings so far, I like the way the situation doesn't get resolved as perfectly as some other kids movies might try. There's no happy ending here. Until a happy ending at the end of the movie. But a film with this much warmth kind of deserves that payoff; can almost be forgiven.
The child stars in this movie have all gone on to star in decent TV movies and the odd mainstream movie as well as appear in plenty of successful TV shows. They deserve it as much as the film deserves a happy ending - most child actors are as 'come and then went' as the flavour of bubblegum, but here (the son and daughter of the household especially) play their roles with a sorrowful, endearing edge that puts other child actors to bed without tea.
Bob the Butler is quite a rude comedy at times for a kids film - some very blue jokes are neatly covered up by the dialogue of the young cast themselves. There's a predictable but still sort of smart play on words about the young boy in the houseold being called 'Bates' (a surreal kind of stupidness - who gives a kid a name like that?) that leads to all kinds of knowing winks when he has to be called 'Master' by Bob: "I don't like it - Master Bates just feels wrong" says the boy to Bob in the bathroom, "Indeed" replies Bob, deadpan. Seriously obvious smut, sure, but seeing kids make the most of the sub-Carry On jokes, is a jolt to conventional family fare - and it's funny, so there!
The film was originally rated PG-13 in the US but was re-rated for a PG. Shame - as the film mostly resists the wrapping up of kids in cotton wool, especially the censorial kind. For a film that's a Canadian/ UK partnership, Bob the Butler has had little exposure on British shores, playing at the Cambridge film festival and on the Movies For Men satellite channel (proving again the idea that it's not just a kids movie this). If you want a DVD of Bob the Butler though, you'll have to get the US disc from Amazon - no UK distributor has this one on their radar.
At times, the film is quite cruel, like all the best kids films are. Brooke Shield's 'bad mom' character is a real mess, constantly wiping surfaces with antiseptic wipes when out and about, caring only about her job above her children, and colour-coding sponges in the house. There's a touching moment - her son doesn't make the basketball team, but he does get to make a connection suddenly with his mum - hugging her for what seems like the first time, Brooke Shields trying her best to hug back in the only way she can at that moment; awkward but caring. Bob watching, smiling - encouraging. Unlike other more obvious kids flicks, the hug doesn't really go anywhere and everything isn't suddenly perfect. But it's a start.
This is a film with a Pythonesque, American Pie and National Lampoon-like sensibility. For a kids movie, that's kind of cool for school. When Bob explains his name as not being 'short for Robert as Rob is short for Robert and Bob is short for, uhh - Bobert', or when a cooked pig farts and explodes Mr Creosote-style in the film's undoubted comedic highlight when Bob pricks the skin (so good a gag it's repeated with Simon Callow taking a turn to pop the roast during the end credits).
Bob, over the course of the movie, finds out that being a butler is one of the hardest jobs in the yellow pages under 'B' - from the dangers of leaving the children alone with strangers (sort of a stranger anyway) to getting the kids out of jail or being asked to comment whether the daughter's top is too revealing to butler training that is clearly just a suicide wish on the part of Mr Butler from that long line of butlers. The film is enlived with a poppy soundtrack too, from Girls Aloud's perhaps predictable 'Love Machine' to the fairly knowingly dreadful (but perfectly 'Bob') rap 'My name is Bob' performed and written by Mr Tom Green himself. It's almost, I hope, an in-joke - how Bob will be when he gets down to 'R' for 'rap artist' in the alphabet.
The opening credits are clever too - an animated sequence of Bob's worst failures in the job world; clearly not in the same class as Terry Gilliam's surreal kind of head-spiralling animation for Python, but I can't help feeling there's a connection, in a film that seethes with a Pythonesque desire to be different. The ending is a letdown (look away now if you don't want to know); a really long, languid yucky kiss that goes on forever - and I'm a grown-up going 'eeeuw' so goodness knows what the kids think. Thankfully the film ends on a less yucky note - Simon Callow and a farting roast pig. And that's clearly saying something!
Bob the Butler director Gary Sinyor's next movie is the supernatural thriller 'The Unseen' in 2013, where the spirit of a young boy causes the mother to lose her sight as well as her senses when she moves with a stranger to an isolated lighthouse 'to escape' - clearly she will be in danger from the aforementioned stranger willing to help. Such a person sounds all too familiar. When I hear the name Bob, I think of Sideshow Bob from the The Simpsons or Killer BOB from Twin Peaks. I can't help thinking that 'our' Bob has to be down to 'P for psychopath' in the Yellow Pages by now.
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer