Appetite for Self Destruction, by Kyle Anderson
Comedies are supposed to be funny, right? They’re supposed to have humorous situations that cause laughter among audiences. At least that’s what I thought. And movies based on true events are supposed to be somewhat believable and interesting, too. Evidently, director Nick Hamm and the makers of the new Irish film Killing Bono decided to buck convention by making a biographical comedy that neither intrigues nor amuses. There are good actors in it doing the best they can, but the failings of the film come from the paint-by-numbers, overly-simplified script and a central character who is about as endearing as someone constantly poking you in the eye overshadow much of the good work they’re doing. The film is based on the memoirs of Neil McCormick, a classmate of the band who would eventually become U2, and even though there are four credited screenwriters, the overall impression is that of a film that can’t decide what story it wants to tell.
The film focuses, too closely if you ask me, on the fictional Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes), a wannabe rock star from Dublin who starts his own band when a friend of his, the man who would be Bono (Martin McCann) starts the band who would be U2. Bono is depicted as having nothing but respect for Neil, though even from the get-go Neil is insanely jealous of him. Bono tells Neil early on that he’d like Neil’s brother, Ivan (Robert Sheehan), to join his band, something Neil vehemently forbids. His brother will be part of his band or no one’s. From there, the meteoric rise of U2 is instantaneous in a way that can only work in movies and Neil decides the McCormick brothers should move to London and try to get a record deal, though to do that, Neil makes a deal to take money from a ruthless Irish gangster (Stanley Townsend). In London, they don’t have much luck and, and even when they do, like when Bono offers to help them get a record deal, Neil flatly refuses it. They meet allies like Karl, their flamboyantly gay landlord (Pete Postlethwaite in his final film role), Hammond, a record producer who hates music (Peter Serafinowicz), and Gloria, the tough American girl across the hall, (Krysten Ritter), who eventually becomes the band’s manager and Neil’s girlfriend. The band begins to do pretty well, but Neil’s pride and disdain for all things Bono eventually leads them down a dangerous spiral.
The movie is cliché after cliché about rock stardom and the music scene in the 80s. Well, of course they do cocaine and have sex with strippers; why wouldn’t they? Everything happens incredibly quickly, much quicker than one would expect from a movie about the trials and tribulations of a rock & roll band. There’s even one scene where the brothers, having failed to obtain a record deal with their demo tapes, declare they need to get a band. Cut immediately to a scene of them with their new band practicing in their flat. We never find out the names of these three new characters, nor do any of them ever say anything, save the occasional unfunny one-liner, and, though they are ostensibly members of a music group, they never have opinions regarding anything. Just get a tape player or something. There’s also the prerequisite infidelity, in-fighting, and breakup and reconciliation that one has come to expect from any episode of “Behind the Music.”
Some of the performances are good. Serafinowicz offers a pretty amusing portrayal of a record exec and he is responsible for the one and only time I laughed while watching the film. Postlethwaite is also good, being that he’s a good actor, in a role that could easily be one-note. He’s very visibly frail, which is quite sad to watch. I was also pretty impressed with Martin McCann playing Bono. He managed to turn in a very low key performance for a person who is a larger-than-life rock god. That Bono is never depicted as the bad guy is somewhat refreshing, given that the movie is about the lead character’s hatred of him. Truthfully, the performances in the film are all pretty good, given the limitations of the script, with the obvious exception of Ben Barnes as Neil.
The downfall of this movie is with Neil as a central character and with Barnes playing him. From scene one, Neil is thoroughly unlikeable. He’s arrogant, rude, naïve, and every decision he makes is the wrong one. He is a self-absorbed idiot and the problem is, he never changes throughout the entirety of the movie. He has to deal with the consequences of his actions, which lead to much hardship, but he never once realizes he’s made a poor decision or even that he might have been wrong. His brother discovers that he could have been in U2 if not for Neil’s actions and is justifiably upset, but at no point, even when they make up, does Neil apologize for it or indeed any of the stupid things he does. And I suppose we’re not even meant to think Neil has done anything wrong, given that there’s a scene between Bono and Ivan wherein Bono asks Ivan is he’d really rather have joined U2 and not been in a band with his brother. WHAT?!?! If the point of the movie is to make us hate our protagonist and as a result the actor playing him, then it was a 100% success.
Every single scene is about Neil and every single action or turn the movie takes is a direct result of something Neil has done. There are only a handful of scenes where Neil isn’t onscreen, but even then, the other characters are talking ABOUT Neil. Nobody gets any character development of their own; everything revolves completely around this one central character. The only reason we know anything about the hopes and desires of others, like Gloria or Ivan, is because they tell them to Neil when he’s done something to piss them off. The real Neil McCormick who wrote the source material must have the most self-centered, self-important, self-aggrandizing view of himself. I’d never want to meet him. He probably still thinks it should have been him instead of Bono.
The whole plot thread with the Irish gangster ends up being the climax of the film, wherein Neil, who in one scene early in the action is described as being a great writer, is forced to do some great writing on the gangster’s behalf. Then, mid-action, we get captions telling us what happened afterward. Like everything else in the movie, the ending is incredibly truncated, which is surprising given the movie is nearly 2hrs long. The pacing is bad, the story is bad, and the main character is bad. Even if you like U2, which I don’t, they only use one U2 song and only then because it’s a plot point in the movie. This is a truly stupid waste of time. I suppose it’s fitting in a story about a guy who constantly shoots himself in the foot that the movie about him virtually fails in every possible way.