From the mid-'70s to the late '90s, British entrepreneur Tony Wilson was handmaiden to the last great empire of British pop. His Factory Records label was home to post-punk miserablists par excellence Joy Division (later New Order) and other grimly danceable acts. By the late '80s, his Manchester nightclub, The Hacienda, was the breeding ground of acid-house dance culture.
The bio/history pic "24 Hour Party People," however, is less about Wilson or the "Madchester" scene he shepherded, and more about director Michael Winterbottom's smashing way with an AVID editing suite. Though the filmmaker's attention to detail is unassailable, his relentless urge to prove his hipster bona-fides mangles his material, while his reportage seldom advances beyond an implied question: "Are you hip enough to dig my vacuity?"
Played with speed-freak intensity by British TV comedian Steve Coogan, the film's Wilson is a regular-guy huckster with a Marxist/semiotics spiel, one who repeatedly and ironically reminds us that he's a Cambridge grad. (Despite Coogan's often hilarious line readings, his Wilson isn't a character as much as a human-shaped condescension device.) After attending an early gig by the Sex Pistols, Wilson stumbles upon his true talent: the ability to locate and promote people of offbeat brilliance. He meets Joy Division, led by an unbearably intense rail of a youth named Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) and signs the band to the nascent Factory, promising total artistic freedom.
When the 23-year-old Curtis commits suicide just before the band's first U.S. tour, the surviving musicians re-form as New Order and sell millions of records.
Cinematographer Robby MŸller's brilliantly degraded digital-video images evoke the bleak, industrial Manchester cityscapes and frosty alienation of the band's songs. But Winterbottom, who seems to have completely bought into post-punk's jaded facade, misses the desperation and passion behind the pose -- with two exceptions.
Obese, crude and usually drunk, Factory house producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) comes off as a Hunter S. Thompson-esque lord of mystically directional chaos, a wonderful presence who gets lost in the movie's sarcastic shuffle. Likewise, Harris' Curtis is bracingly on the mark. His face is a death mask, his gaze perpetually focused inward on some unnamed terror that vaguely fascinates him. The moments just before his suicide might be the most accurate evocation of self-annihilation in the movies.
After Curtis dies, the movie falls apart as well. We get a scattered semihistory of the dope-addled Happy Mondays and vague, self-important prattle about how Wilson's gang invented DJ culture for white people, before drugs and fiscal mismanagement led to the soft-landing fall of the empire. Moments of insight are brief and few amid the CGI animation and Spinal Tap-ish hijinks, as Wilson's narration degenerates from an amusement into something more akin to metal on fresh fillings. For social context, Winterbottom offers a snidely narrated eye-blink montage of hospital strikes, gas shortages and neo-Fascist activity, ignoring the question implicit in the movie's title: Why would people want to party for 24 minutes, to say nothing of 24 hours, to doleful tunes with titles such as "I Remember Nothing" and "Atrocity Exhibition"?