Do you know how many points the word ‘xi’ is worth in Scrabble? Do you know why they don’t sell Marmite in Canada? Or if ‘zo’ is a real word? These are the kinds of questions addressed in Sometimes Always Never, a drama about family dysfunction and the odd things that bring people together.
Bill Nighy plays Alan, a dapper Liverpudlian and Scrabble hustler (he is a tailor by trade and this gives the film its title, referring to the standard rule for buttoning a suit jacket) obsessed with the word game; Alan has been searching for his son Michael, who ran out on the family years ago during a heated argument about the validity of the word ‘zo’ and was never seen again. Alan’s twin obsessions with Scrabble and finding Michael has led to years of neglect of his other son Peter (a very restrained Sam Riley), who despite having his own family, still yearns for the love and acceptance of his old man.
We first meet Alan and Peter as they travel cross country to identify a body that could possibly be Michael’s. They stay overnight in a hotel and come across a couple, Arthur and Margaret (Tim McInnerney and Jenny Agutter), who are self-professed Scrabble fans. Alan spies an opportunity here and makes out he knows nothing about the game, amusingly questioning whether the word ‘jazz’ can be played as a Scrabble score.
Soon enough Arthur lays down a £200 bet on the outcome of the game, blissfully unaware that Alan’s ability to use every single letter on his first go to make the word ‘fleeced’ is a prophetic sign of events to come. Peter is understandably frustrated with Alan’s antics but has detached himself at this point to the extent he leaves when he sees the writing on the wall.
Eventually, Alan moves in with Peter and his family in a misguided attempt to repair some of the damage he has wrought on their relationship, but it is Peter’s son Jack (Louis Healy) who gains the benefit of his grandfather’s wisdom. This leads to some amusing scenes where Alan attempts to help his grandson win the favour of the girl at the bus stop he doggedly stands at every morning, hoping to speak with her. All of this culminates in an online Scrabble game with a mysterious stranger who Alan becomes convinced is his missing son.
A Scrabble Too Far
Sometimes Always Never was written by veteran storyteller Frank Cottrell Boyce and helmed by first time director Carl Hunter. From the opening scenes featuring a consciously fake car ride, with a back projection so unsubtle they may as well have left the screen green, to the overly twee aesthetic in the kitchen scenes, it’s clear this film owes a great debt to Wes Anderson. Yet for all it apes the Andersonian style so nakedly, it never retains the easy whimsical nature or lightness of script that makes films like Moonrise Kingdom and Hotel Budapest so uniquely joyful.
In fact, it tends to be a detriment to the film, detracting frequently from any scene which might carry emotional resonance or pathos. The colour palette is aggressive, the tones so bright they jar against the nature of the scenes, and Hunter occasionally tries too hard to make this quirky where it really doesn’t need to be – such as the aforementioned car ride, or the patronising cards which give a dictionary definition of words. All of this takes away from the story and feels more like a project trying to show off how inventive and whimsical it can be instead of telling a story.
As for the acting, it’s difficult to go wrong when casting Bill Nighy. The actor’s easy, casual demeanour and distinctly mellow Englishness make him a great fit for the smooth-talking Alan, and there are very few films in existence in which Nighy has given a less than endearing performance in any case. Sam Riley, too, gives a good performance as the conflicted Peter, who oscillates between anger at his father’s neglect, and longing for a close relationship with him.
The heart of Sometimes Always Never is really an observation into the relationship between father and son, and whether it’s possible to bridge the gap between them. In that way, this film occasionally shines through; there are some genuinely touching moments here, as difficult as they are to find amid the surreal exaggeration of almost everything else in the film.
Father & Son
It’s a shame this central premise is so thin and underwhelming in the face of everything else. It’s difficult to invest in these characters when they play second fiddle to the quirkiness of the film itself. Small scenes such as Alan’s attempts to connect with Jack through video games, or Jack faking a phone call to a friend in which he brags about sexual conquests in order to win the affections of the bus stop girl ultimately fall flat because we’ve been given very little time or reason to connect with these characters in any meaningful way.
Although you want to root for Alan and Peter to mend their relationship and become father and son again, there’s very little in the way of Alan’s growth which suggests this time might be different. It leads to a disconnectedness as the film lurches towards its final act, an attempt to crow-bar in a mystery which seems at odds with the fairly muted, safe dramady which had been on display before.
Sometimes Always Never feels like an attempt at a pastiche of Wes Anderson films, but the fatal flaw in that attempt is that it forgets the heart imbued in those films. Strip away the eccentricity, the bright colours, the unique visual flair of Wes Anderson‘s output and you’ll find stories full of genuine moments and more than enough heart to carry you through. Here, though, it seems as though the main focus has been on aesthetics alone.
It overpowers any chance this film has to resonate and undermines the characters themselves. It’s a shame because there are good moments here; Bill Nighy is excellent, the rest of the cast is as solid as they have the chance to be, and any film written by Frank Cottrell Boyce has no right to lack emotion or pathos. It’s just a shame that was lost here.
Although it strives for the kind of idiosyncrasy and wit that made Wes Anderson a household name, Sometimes Always Never, unfortunately, falls short of that lofty achievement and lands somewhere in the middle ground. Featuring a strong performance by Bill Nighy and not a whole lot else, there isn’t much to make this film stand out.
Bill Nighy gives an excellent performance in Sometimes Always Never. What are your favourite Bill Nighy films? Let us know in the comments below!
Sometimes Always Never was on Virtual Theatrical release June 12th, and will be available On Demand from July 10th
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