The Anti-'King's Speech': When British Hits Don't Translate to U.S. Audiences

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The Inbetweeners Movie was No. 3 at the U.K. box office last year but is only now finding its way here—and faces, like most comedies from England, a tough sell in America.

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The British invasion just never ends. It's gotten to the point where American actors can barely even get parts on television shows that are firmly entrenched in U.S. locations or culture: Brits played Baltimore cops and crooks on The Wire, and it seems as if half the vampires in Bon Temps speak the Queen's English off camera. Meanwhile, Batman is Welsh, and when I tell you that the new Superman is from Jersey, I'm not speaking of the same one that gave us Snooki.

Beyond British actors playing Americans, the U.S. is also gobbling up plenty of overtly British culture, particularly in the crossover popularity of BBC series like Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey. One of the most popular TV shows of the past decade, The Office, was nicked from the U.K, and we continue to exhibit an odd fascination with the royal family, given that they shouldn't mean anything to us at all.

As it's not fantasy, science fiction, or costume drama, the film's probably doomed on this side of the Atlantic.

But for all our various obsessions with British culture, there are still high-profile British properties that don't travel so well. In 2011, the three films that topped the United Kingdom box office were fundamentally or thematically British productions. No. 1 was the final installment of Harry Potter, which also ruled the U.S. chart. Next on the list was The King's Speech, which was released in 2010 in the U.S. for Oscar qualification; while not quite as popular here as there, it still made well over $100 million in the U.S. and was in the year's top 20, which isn't bad for a period drama about a stuttering monarch. But at the U.K.'s No. 3, after those familiar titles, there's The Inbetweeners Movie.

Most American moviegoers won't recognize that name, even though the film raked in more pounds last year than Pirates of the Caribbean 4, The Hangover 2, Twilight 3, and Transformers 3. It nearly made as much in England as Bridesmaids and the second Sherlock Holmes combined, and Sherlock's a British hero. (Though, taking the sting slightly out of the outsourcing of Batman and Superman, an American actor—Robert Downey, Jr.—did manage to steal that role away from any natives).

The film is an extension of a British television series about a group of four high-school boys and their constant quest for sex and booze. The series did air on BBC America starting in 2010, which is probably the only reason the film managed to get a U.S. release at all, as a small band of vocal fans campaigned for it to screen here. Otherwise one of the biggest cultural phenomena in recent British memory might not have even made it here—save for in the inevitable American remake of the TV program, which, much like another UK teen show, Skins, MTV picked up for adaptation.

The Inbetweeners Movie hits select U.S. cinemas this weekend, and while it remains to be seen how well it does, given little marketing push and the unfamiliarity of most Americans with the series, it's not likely to go far. It would hardly be the only wildly popular British product that couldn't quite gain traction here, though. This year, Pirates!, the latest from Aardman Animation—the studio best known for the Wallace and Gromit characters, who have managed some success here—is a top-20 film there and far down the list here. Last year Aardman had another hit in the U.K., Arthur Christmas, that faltered in the U.S.

Also last year, the spy farce sequel Johnny English Reborn finished just out of the top-10 in the U.K. and was within a few million dollars of displacing Bridesmaids. American audiences embraced it about as wholeheartedly as we do Mr. Bean, another alter ego of comedian Rowan Atkinson, another British figure who's wildly popular there but only induces head-scratching here. Atkinson's appearance during the Olympic opening ceremonies in a Chariots of Fire parody likely played for a lot more laughs in Manchester, U.K. than in Manchester, NH.

The laugh factor might be the key to the disconnect in these cases. British humor, going back at least as far as Monty Python, has always been an acquired taste for U.S. audiences. That's why popular British sitcoms have such an abysmal track record in their U.S. remakes. Coupling managed to air four episodes, and the truly horrible U.S. pilots for adaptations of Spaced and The IT Crowd never saw the light of day outside of YouTube. Even The Office, which bucked the odds, only succeeded after finding its own way, entirely separate from its inspiration. Those first few episodes that self-consciously ape the British Office are shaky at best.

In the case of The Inbetweeners Movie, the humor follows in a long tradition of British sex and bodily function comedy so frank that it that it seems to make Americans a little uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, the U.S. likes a good fart joke as much as the next country, and the last decade especially has seen plenty of homegrown teen-sex comedies. But there's a matter-of-fact explicitness to the jokes in The Inbetweeners that sometimes makes its U.S. analogues seem quaint in comparison.

The basic premise will be familiar to anyone who's seen American Pie: Four recent high school graduates, each meeting a basic teen movie stereotype—the brainy one, the boastful one, the dumb one, the sensitive one—are on a dedicated quest to find sex. Yet the execution is entirely different. When Finch has sex with Stifler's mom at the end of American Pie, we see the seduction and the aftermath. If a similar plot point were in The Inbetweeners, we'd have seen as graphic a representation of the act as the ratings board would allow, and something would likely have gone horribly, embarrassingly wrong for Finch while it was going on.

Understanding The Inbetweeners Movie doesn't require having seen the series; the narrative involves the four guys heading to Crete for a holiday to celebrate graduating high school and spending all their time getting drunk and hitting on women, poorly. It's not hard to follow. But seeing the series does help in acclimating to the film's tone and the style, which can otherwise be a little jarring. Perhaps that's why the film's distributors don't seem to be putting much effort into trying to break the movie into the American market.

That's probably a sound instinct on their part. The Inbetweeners Movie has plenty of funny bits, and apart from some fairly appalling underlying sexism—guys, screw up all you like, the movie says, because the nice, pretty girls will forgive any transgression—it actually attempts to have plenty of heart as well. But as it's not fantasy, science fiction, or costume drama, it's probably doomed on this side of the Atlantic. Most Americans have a firmly entrenched aesthetic when it comes to British entertainment, and comedy doesn't fit into it.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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