Following a voice over narration which drowns out the visually atmospheric introduction of London’s hustle and bustle before the action is transferred to the claustrophobic setting of Stella Bar in Soho, author Alice (Shirley Henderson) receives a letter from her publisher informing the scribe that her latest manuscript has been rejected as both “unmarketable” and “mind-numbing.” Shortly thereafter, one begins to feel exactly the same way about writer Jennifer Higgie’s unfocused, rambling, and over-the-top screenplay which, just like Alice’s overly intellectualized novel, seems to be in dire need of revision.
Director Oliver Parker has proven in the past that he has a penchant for plays with the inventive adaptation of An Ideal Husband and the mediocre yet watchable versions of Othello (saved by Kenneth Branagh) and The Importance of Being Earnest. He seems to be up to his old theatrical tricks once again when tackling Higgie’s text, which although it tries to pass itself off as a film, seems like it would have been better suited to an avant-garde or experimental college feminist theatre troupe production rather than the world of independent film. Saddled with an unimaginative and narrow title that fails to highlight the film’s ensemble nature, Parker relies heavily on his talented cast to disguise the many shortcomings as we spend a chaotic, irritating, and disaster ridden evening among five female restaurant employees who find themselves in charge of the entire bar after they’re unexpectedly disappointed by two other male employees off-screen.
While task-master Madonna (Anna Maxwell Martin)-- a well-intentioned but largely ineffective manager tries to promote working as a team and trying to cover up her soon to be broken heart, affable Henderson’s Alice suffers burns and catastrophe slaving away in the kitchen alongside a maniacal dishwashing assistant named Rita (Oana Pellea) who smokes like a chimney and spouts communist revolutionary theories with zero prompting. Rounding out the group is the film’s saving grace in the form of the sweet but admittedly dim German art student Suzie (Alexandra Maria Lara) whose innocent naiveté provides an entirely welcome counterpoint to Neve Campbell’s brash, debt-ridden struggling actress Abbie who comes to work on her thirtieth birthday and proceeds to have a breakdown over the course of the ninety minute film.
Unsuccessfully trying to cram far too many offbeat (and 99% unlikable) characters into the chaotic production does little to endear Parker’s film to audiences, despite a nice cameo in the end by actor Danny Huston who seems to have both waltzed in from and onto an entirely different production altogether. While every once in awhile an actress delivers a killer line you know you’ll remember long after you hit eject, you can’t help wondering how much better it would’ve been if-- much like Alice’s manuscript-- they’d streamlined it when it was still in the writing stage by trimming the fat, combining personalities or removing some of the unruly characters altogether.