'Girls' Gone Mild

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2003

IF YOU enjoyed "The Full Monty," you'll probably enjoy "Calendar Girls," despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is little more than a distaff version of the 1997 hit about out-of-shape British steelworkers who turn to stripping when they lose their jobs.

Having already been dubbed "The Full Auntie" by certain media wags -- darn them for taking my best line! -- the only gently amusing comedy-drama by Nigel ("Saving Grace" ) Cole tells the real-life story of a stodgy English women's club that put out a calendar a few years back showing its less-than-bootylicious members in the almost-buff in order to raise money to buy a new couch for the local hospital's visitor's lounge. Needless to say, the not-quite-naughty pictures, in which the women older than 50 are shown hiding behind suggestively shaped baked goods, strategically placed flower pots, homey skeins of yarn and the like, is a runaway bestseller, leading not just to an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" but to marital discord and jeopardized friendships.

Wait a minute. That sounds serious.

Yes. Perhaps the only surprising thing about this cut-and-dried tale of pluck and inspiration is just how much of a downer it really is. Despite the laugh-out-loud yuk-fest it seems destined to be packaged as, "Calendar Girls" has shockingly few giggles, thanks to the fact that it opens with -- and lavishes too much attention on -- one of filmdom's biggest bring-downs: the death of a loved one from cancer.

That's right. The whole idea for the calendar doesn't arise until Annie (Julie Walters) loses her beloved husband, John (John Alderton), to leukemia, and her best friend, Chris (Helen Mirren), hits upon the notion of slightly tweaking their charitable women's organization's custom of publishing an annual calendar picturing scenic local bridges or still lifes, including jars of jam. Although the scenes revolving around the actual shooting of the calendar are undeniably funny, much screen time is devoted to scenes of Annie at the hospital, Annie at John's graveside, Annie answering mail from sympathetic widows and Annie arguing with Chris about how all the media attention has overshadowed what this thing is all about. Which, as we know, is love, marching to the beat of your own drummer and the ability to find beauty in the bodies of mature women.

I know, I know. It's meant to create a kind of tension, and it is, after all, faithful to the facts of the original case. Dramatically speaking, though, the lingering echoes of tragedy and the growing dissension between Annie and Chris serve not to enrich but mainly to sour what little surefire humor is contained in the sight of wrinkly women stepping out of their modest brassieres and sensible knickers.

Waters and Mirren are, of course, excellent in their roles, doing their best to make Annie and Chris more complicated than this slight story deserves. "Calendar Girls" wants to inspire us, to make us laugh and cry. In the final analysis, the cumulative effect of racy humor mixed with disease-of-the-week melodrama is this: The film ends up feeling neither sizzling nor sobering, but like a warm and slightly insipid cup of artificially sweetened herbal tea.

CALENDAR GIRLS (PG-13, 108 minutes) -- Contains largely -- but not entirely -- obstructed views of naked body parts, a tiny bit of rude language, thematic sexuality and the smoking of what turns out to be oregano, all in heavily Yorkshire-accented English that could stand to have a subtitle now and again. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company