“44 Inch Chest” Doesn't Quite Work Out

“44 Inch Chest” tells the story of a cuckold who rallies his mates to help him exact revenge on his wife’s younger, French (as if his being younger weren't bad enough) lover. It is frustratingly close to being great, but falls just short.

The film, written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the team that created the epic “Sexy Beast,” stars "Beast" alum Ray Winstone, a great actor, with a believable mix of a ferocity, charm and humanity. Winstone's tough guys are never broad, comic book baddies, they’re people. And here, as Colin, his talents are again evident as he wrestles with whether or not to extract his pound of flesh from the man sleeping with his wife, and his own guilt -- over what exactly we learn as the film progresses. Colin’s sins are revealed through flashbacks to the night his wife gave him the news, and for once the trick actually works. It seems ever since “Pulp Fiction,” some folks do it because they can. In “44” it serves a purpose.

God bless John Hurt (and the English in general) for his gift with profanity as Old Man Peanut. The hail of spittle that accompanies each F-word, the phlegm jarred loose by the hard start of a proper C-bomb… it’s poetry. He was rightly nominated Best Supporting Actor by the London Critics Circle for his turn as the bloodthirsty and wildly profane homophobe.

As he did in “Sexy Beast,” Ian McShane again plays gay. But where Teddy Bass was a terrifying monster without a whiff of fem, in “44” McShane plays a man named Meredith, who is perfectly turned out and unabashedly fey. In the hands of another actor, it could feel like stunt casting -- the tough guy playing against type -- but McShane doesn’t denigrate Meredith by making him a caricature.

The rest of the acting is excellent, as well, from Joanne Whalley (where the hell has she been) to Tom Wilkinson to Stephen Dillane (nominated for an Emmy for playing Thomas Jefferson in “John Adams”), nary a line is wasted, nor an opportunity missed.

“44," whose title tries to take the measure of a man and his manliness, feels almost like a play, with its small cast and the bulk of its action in one small room. Director Malcom Venville made his bones directing TV commercials, most notably the Volkswagen commercial “Squares” and a Nike spot featuring Tiger Woods. Venville is also a photographer, having published multiple books. His aesthetic sensibility is in full display -- his camera is very slow and unblinking, often making you squirm right along with Winstone in the grips of his moral dilemma.

The story goes awry when Colin begins to hallucinate. The conversation between the seven characters takes a turn that at first feels surreal -- it’s reminiscent of the Harold Pinter's “The Homecoming” (the revival of which McShane starred in on Broadway in 2007-2008). But what made Pinter's play so dizzying, discomforting and powerful was the complete absence of hallucination. In “44,” you lose your balance only momentarily before realizing that what's happening isn't really happening. It's been made clear that the voices in Colin's head are confusing him, it doesn't need to be made so clear.

Fans of "Sexy Beast" should check their expectations. "44 Inch Chest" is a very different film, much more subtle, with the rage at a simmer, rather than a full boil. And the humor, dark as night, helps you breathe a little more easily. Like "Beast," it's a clinic in great acting, but it doesn't quite measure up.

"44 Inch Chest" opens in Los Angeles today and across the country over the next few weeks.

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