“Keeping Mum” is a quirky and whimsical black comedy from England that tries to keep firmly in the tradition of such classics as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Ladykillers.” The problem is that it spends so much time and energy trying to be quirky and whimsical that it never quite gets around to being funny. The result is an odd and unsatisfying misfire that treats viewers to the sight of a lot of good actors flailing around in the service of a screenplay that is nowhere near as witty or devastating as it seems to think it is.Set in one of those quaint little British towns that presumably exists only in quaint little British movies, “Keeping Mum” centers on the quietly dysfunctional Goodfellow family. Family head Walter (Rowan Atkinson), the town vicar, has become so consumed with his work duties that he has devolved into a humorless dullard who doesn’t see that the rest of his family is spinning out of control. Wife Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas), is growing increasingly frustrated with her existence and is contemplating an affair with the hunky local golf pro (Patrick Swayze . . . yes, Patrick Swayze), daughter Holly (Tamsin Egerton) is quickly turning into the town slut and son Petey (Toby Parkes) is constantly being picked on by the bullies at school. The family’s fortunes begin to change, however, with the arrival of new housekeeper Grace (Maggie Smith), the kind of sweet, efficient and no-nonsense type that makes Mary Poppins herself seem like a lazy slag by comparison. However, it soon becomes apparent that Grace is going to extremes in order to serve the Goodfellows and the results of her actions are beginning to stack up in the pond out in back.
On paper, “Keeping Mum” seems to have many of the ingredients for a successful black comedy. After all, the conceit of perfectly nice people knocking off perfectly loathsome heels without ever losing a shred of their essential decency is a staple of the genre . I also liked some of the performances as well–Kristin Scott Thomas is pretty amusing as the distracted wife, Tamsin Egerton lends a nicely sassy presence as the tramp-in-training and the great Maggie Smith perfectly conveys an outward sense of sweetness that almost, but not quite, disguises the psychotic behavior bubbling just beneath the surface. The problem with the film is that it is part of a genre that requires just the right comedic touch if it is to have any chance of succeeding and writer-director Niall Johnson never quite finds the right tone for the material. While he is clearly trying to approach the genteel tone of the classic Ealing Studio comedies, he winds up with an approach that is so aggressively restrained that the entire thing seems to be playing in slow motion. As a result, the comedy never builds and too many big jokes wind up misfiring as a result.“Keeping Mum” does have its occasional charms and I can see how some might find it funny if they happened to stumble upon it on television one night when nothing else is on. However, as a big-screen enterprise–one that involves viewers to venture out into the night and fork over a chunk of change for tickets and parking–it is just a little too flimsy and insubstantial for its own good.