A movie about the troubles of a Scrabble hustler, an ice-cream-truck artist, and a male Bonnie Tyler impersonator might be expected to raise an eyebrow. You could be forgiven if you fear being subjected to an overdose of twee. Somehow that is not the case with Sometimes Always Never, a delicate and gentle English film that is, in a small but elegant way, endearing.
A dry, light directorial touch on the part of debut filmmaker Carl Hunter proves just the thing for this alternately sad and funny story by the veteran screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (whose many credits include Hilary and Jackie, Millions, and the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics). But it takes a dry, light lead actor to make this material work. Bill Nighy is that actor, and the more I watch him, the more transfixed I am. How is he so marvelous? With rare exceptions, such as his swaggering turn in Love Actually, he never seems to be doing any acting whatsoever. If he went so far as to alter his tone of voice or move his head, it would seem like histrionics. It may be that he simply has the greatest deadpan face on the planet and is wise enough never to do more than is necessary.
In Sometimes Always Never (not to be confused with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an American indie film that was released in April), Nighy is Alan, a natty widowed tailor who is master of the dark arts of Scrabble. Rarely does this detail fail to be useful to him. It isn’t hard to imagine him roaming his small, wet island winning bets against unsuspecting marks like the love child of Fast Eddie Felson and a dictionary. He does have a more pressing purpose than playing a board game, however. He and his grown son Peter (a beleaguered Sam Riley, wearing an unfortunate dusting of facial hair) have gotten a clue about the possible whereabouts of Alan’s other son, who has been missing for quite some time.
The film is whimsical without being cloying thanks to the forbearance of its director’s choices. Hunter restrains himself even as he celebrates the restraints of his budget, which appears to have been in the range of 50 bucks. A driving scene is an adorably cheap-looking “process shot,” meaning the moving road is simply projected behind the non-moving car, and a dramatic maritime incident is rendered with what appears to be a bath toy. A director more in love with his own flourishes, such as Wes Anderson, would not have settled for cute and would have kept going until he hit cutesy. He also would rarely have stopped reminding you to laugh at the stone-faced weirdness.
In this director’s hands, though, the movie plays not like a man-child’s dollhouse fantasy but simply as a refreshing draught of droll English eccentricity. Could there really be a guy out there who is famous for his cover version of Bonnie Tyler’s 1977 hit “It’s a Heartache”? Could an old codger really be so rude as to score in his own son’s small home? Peter can’t believe Dad had the effrontery to have sex in his bed, mainly because, “I don’t even have sex in my bed.” Dad counters that he couldn’t very well have had sex in the only other bed in the house because it’s a teen’s bunk bed and “I’m not Tarzan.”
There is an emotional core within the comedy, though, something to do with finding the right words and how families bond and how they fall apart. Somehow Scrabble is the proper metaphor for all of this. Peter laments that the game is more strategic than beautiful: “You think you’re gonna be playing ‘legume’ or ‘lambent,’” he says with a sigh. “But it’s all ‘nu,’ ‘pi,’ xa’ and ‘xu.’”A tad obscure, but there’s some meaning there, something tied up with the exhausting nature of constant masculine competition. Having lost the only woman in the house, Alan and his two sons fought too much, were angry too much, took too little joy in Scrabble. Beauty went out of their life. Alan is not blameless in what’s gone wrong, but amid all of his blathering about Scrabble, he’s quietly making use of his other skill: sewing things back together. As with his trade, so it goes with his family. He works adroitly, so the seams won’t show.