Shannon (Minnie Driver) is a workaholic nurse at a London hospital. Her best friend Frances (Mary McCormack) is an American actress suffering in fringe theatre productions. When the two women play with the radio scanner of Shannon's useless soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, they pick up the communications of a gang in the process of burgling safety deposit boxes. The women go to the police, only to be given short shrift. Frances eventually hits upon the idea of blackmailing the robbers for a share of the loot. Shannon goes along, at first reluctantly, then with growing zest. The criminals, meanwhile, are dumbfounded who would have the gall to mess with them?
While the script never reaches the lunatic Brownian motion of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, it has a wonderful, droll internal logic and sense of absurdity, with great little throwaway riffs and very good sense about just how far to push a gag. The running gags are handled gently, whether or not they wind up paying off in plot terms, so that we remain amused instead of feeling harangued. One of the film's great achievements is it maintains a generally light tone while managing to take violence seriously shootings and explosions are sobering (even if the actions eventually taken by uninjured characters as a result become comedic). It's a fine line that is tread deftly here.
Driver's forthright pragmatism is very appealing. McCormack pitches Frances expertly, playing her neither as daffy and vulnerable nor cartoonishly resolved, but simply as an enthusiastic, fairly normal (if neurotic) woman who sincerely believes she's hit upon a good idea. The two actresses both display backbone and a sharp understanding that this type of comedy is usually funnier when played energetically straight. (One of the film's better sight gags comes from an unusually realistic depiction of what might happen if an untrained person tried to use an automatic weapon.)
Kevin McNally epitomizes cool, rough menace as one of the two major gangsters, with Michael Gambon exuding an oblique, dire nastiness that has echoes of Pinter we're not sure exactly why this guy is so scary, but Gambon makes sure that he is. Mark Williams and Kevin Eldon both score as two cops who are assigned to investigate the burglary.
HIGH HEELS AND LOW LIFES finds a way to give us conventional characters we can root for in a crime setting, at once honoring and affectionately sending up the conventions of the British gangster film. It's lightweight but well-made, and highly enjoyable.
Reviewed Format: Limited Theatrical Release
Rated: R (language, violence, some nudity)
Stars: Minnie Driver, Mary McCormack, Kevin McNally, Michael Gambon, Danny Dyer
Writers: Kim Fuller, story by Kim Fuller & Georgia Pritchett
Director: Mel Smith
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures