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‘The Tall Guy’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 21, 1990

Jeff Goldblum is a paragon of gawky charm and awkward vulnerabilities in "The Tall Guy," a British-made romp with the comic gusto of "A Fish Called Wanda." This tall guy is a fish out of water, an outsize American Gulliver striding Cleese-clumsy among London's swifter-thinking Lilliputians. He's the china shop bull, not stamping the teacups but attempting to sip from them daintily, pinkie curled.

Goldblum is Dexter King, an actor who figured he'd have no competition for American roles if he moved to London. What he didn't expect was that there would be none. So he has become a straight man for Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson), an abusive superstar with a long-running show on London's White Way. A chintzy, gnat-sized ogre, Ron abuses poor Dexter, the hapless klutz, both on and offstage.

Dexter's personal life, a parade of bad dates and hay-fever attacks, seems all the emptier when compared to the full and eventful one of his flat mate, a nymphomaniac with a thriving practice and a heart of gold. Rumpled and pathetic, Dexter comes home nightly to naked men and cold cereal, a gloomy ritual that is finally ended thanks to the sneezing fits that threaten his stage career. At the local allergy clinic, Dexter is smitten by nurse Kate Lemmon (Emma Thompson), but he endures a series of painful shots before he gathers the courage to ask for a date.

Urged on by Kate, he goes on a series of auditions and lands the role of John Merrick in a preposterous musical adaptation of "The Elephant Man" called "Elephant!" Critical praise for his makeup makes Dexter a star, but just when everything seems to be falling into place, he falls in with a seductive chorine and very nearly loses everything. Wretched and alone, he wanders the streets in his trunk and big ears.

Richard Curtis, an actor and writer, loosely bases this droll, daft and spoofy screenplay on his own experiences as comedian Rowan Atkinson's straight man. He pokes fun at everything from his own inadequacies to the precious conventions of stage and screen. Especially delicious is his roast of Andrew Lloyd Webber musical epics through the book and lyrics of "Elephant!" which feature a chorus line of tap-dancing pachyderms and a grand finale that salutes Merrick: "Somewhere up in heaven there's an angel with big ears."

"The Tall Guy," breezily steered along by British comedian, writer and TV director Mel Smith, is chockablock with bits, puns, stuff and nonsense. Every twist brings some new turn-on, as when Dexter and Kate's love is requited in a rumpus of burst milk cartons and broken furniture. It's a triumph of tongue and cheekiness.

"The Tall Guy" is rated R and includes nudity, sex and profanity.

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