Review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie, but I'm Not Sure Why
The hit West End musical gets a glossy film adaptation.
When I was a teenager, there were exactly three gay movies on the shelves of my local Blockbuster Video, and they all followed roughly the same formula: One happy date between two attractive men leads inevitably to heartbreak and AIDS. This was not an implausible plot in the dark days of the early '90s, but I'm thankful that young queer kids have happier examples of how their lives could be in today's entertainment options.
The latest is Everybody's Talking About Jamie, the 20th Century Studios screen adaptation of the hit West End musical, which is itself a stage adaptation of the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. It's about Jamie (Max Harwood), a gay teenager who asks for (and receives) a pair of glittering red pumps for his 16th birthday. These chacha heels are delivered with a warm smile by his unfailingly supportive mum (Sarah Lancashire as a Giving Tree in autumn). Jamie's best friend, Pritti (Lauren Patel), encourages him to wear his heels to the prom, launching him on a quest to become a full-fledged drag queen. He looks to the guidance of drag guru Hugo Battersby, a.k.a. Loco Chanel (Richard E. Grant as a compelling Sister Miyagi). With a little practice and a lot of eye shadow, he plans to be in top form for the formal.
But there are three hurdles standing in Jamie's way: Least daunting is the hapless school bully, Dean (Samuel Bottomley), who thinks Jamie is a "freak show." Jamie does a grand jeté over this one, looking the bully right in the eye and telling him he has a small penis. Then there's Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), a teacher who encourages her pupils to dream small (Pritti is her favorite because she wants to be a doctor, unlike the budding TikTok stars in her class). She doesn't support something as "disruptive" as a male student wearing a dress to prom. And then there's Jamie's macho-man father (Ralph Ineson), whom mum is constantly covering for. But is a disapproving father enough to stop someone as fabulous as Jamie?
The answer is no, and that's no major revelation. Like a Ukrainian peasant in a Soviet musical about collective farming, Jamie's triumph is predestined. Even when he seems to be struggling, Harwood's unflappable (and slightly icy) performance leaves no room for doubt. Confident and assertive, he is a new kind of gay teenager. In fact, book writer Tom MacRae (who also penned the screenplay) has named him "Jamie New" (this is not even his most heavy-handed flourish). I'm thrilled that in 2021 gay teenagers can be more than closet cases and victims. The problem is that in absence of any real obstacles, the stakes of Everybody's Talking About Jamie feel awfully low. It's like an inspirational story from the makeup segment of RuPaul's Drag Race stretched to two hours.
Musical comedy need not offer edge-of-your-seat suspense, but Dan Gillespie Sells's mediocre score gives us few reasons to stay engaged. The songs range from bland schmaltz ("He's My Boy," a kind of torch song for mum) to Eurovision reject pile (the title song). One of the better songs is an all-new number not in the stage show, "This Was Me," which allows Hugo to unload his whole backstory within minutes of meeting Jamie, in a nod to the tragic gay dramas of the '90s. We're not surprised when Jamie goes running from his shop.
All of that adversity is only background noise to the Jamie show: Director Jonathan Butterell (who helmed the stage production) takes the Chicago approach by making all the numbers figments of Jamie's imagination. Picture and sound are more processed than individually wrapped slices of American cheese, assaulting our senses with flash bulbs and star wipes. Kate Prince competently choreographs these high-concept music videos, and the result is about as much fun as one can have witnessing a teenager's delusions of grandeur.
MacRae's screenplay is best when it stumbles upon one of the downed wires of our postindustrial society, like in a late scene when Pritti tells Dean, "Tomorrow, we're done. Exams over. School finished. And I start getting on with the rest of my life. But you...tomorrow, you're nothing." Everyone cheers the aspiring doctor as she tells off the soon-to-be-nothing. Minutes later, the vanquished Dean broods, "She is right...I'll be doing some shit job, if I'm lucky. You'll walk right past me. You won't even recognize me." And the lesson is clear: As punishment for his adolescent crimes, Dean will serve a life sentence as a subjugated member of the working class. It makes one wonder who is the real bully, in the long run.
I suspect that, after a particularly depressing year, feel-good schlock like Everybody's Talking About Jamie will be in high demand. It asks very little from its audience, it reaffirms what they already know to be true, and it sends them off with a guaranteed happy ending. It has the added benefit of seeming avant-garde while being completely inoffensive to the values and manners embraced by those at the commanding heights of our culture. But will anybody be talking about Jamie 50 years from now? I have my doubts.
Everybody's Talking About Jamie will be available to Amazon Prime subscribers on September 17.