Movie fans are somewhat conditioned to be wary of marketing materials and their inherently misleading nature. The awful poster for What We Did on Our Holiday, the new British comedy by the writing-directing duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, teased a certain type of safe family comedy – you know, a family vacation gone wackily awry! However, What We Did on Our Holiday is only mildly entrenched in that cinematic tradition. Instead of taking likeable and relatable characters to their wits end on vacation, this is a film with angry, unlikeable people who endlessly bicker.
Opening in a frenzied pace, lots of fast cutting and quick talking, Abi (Rosamund Pike) along with her estranged husband Doug (David Tennant) are frantically trying to coral their children in the car for their vacation to see Gordie (Billy Connolly), Doug’s father, for his 75th birthday party. Along the drive Abi and Doug are forced to answer questions about their tentative relationship and other odd questions from their children. The three children are just broad clichés. There’s Mickey (Bobby Smallridge), the boy obsessed with Vikings; Jess (Harriet Turnbull), the youngest and quirkiest member of the clan; and Lottie (Emilia Jones), the smart, dispassionate sibling (she wears glasses so you know she’s smart). The family arrives at Doug’s brother Gavin’s (Ben Miller) estate, where he lives with Gordie and his wife Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) and tech-obsessed son Kenneth (Lewis Davie). Basically, the adults endlessly bicker about whatever is placed in front of them while Grandpa imparts wisdom on his grandchildren. Until he doesn’t.
This might be considered spoilerish, but this is where What We Did on Our Holiday takes a turn from being grating, with its endlessly bickering characters, to genuinely baffling. You see, Gordie was diagnosed with cancer, and his time is short. During an afternoon with his grandchildren on the beach, Gordie quietly passes away in his sleep. Based upon an earlier conversation, the three grandchildren decide to honor his wishes and provide him a Viking funeral, as not to sully any funeral with the constant adult bickering. So these children that range in ages between 4 and 10 construct a wooden raft, secure their grandfather’s body, and set the raft afloat before setting it ablaze – and all before dinnertime. All of this attempted to be played for laughs, but it winds up being as funny as Weekend at Bernie’s 2. Eventually everyone finds out what has happened, which sparks a media frenzy, which sparks everyone to stop bickering. Life lessons learned. Happy ending.
In the flurry of arguing that makes up most of the film, there are a couple of lines and reactions that garner a chuckle here and there. Aside from the reliable Billy Connolly, who brings a wonderful mix of humor and empathy, everyone in the cast is entirely wasted. Rosamund Pike is turned into a shrill nag, the comedic timing she’s presented in films like The World’s End all but evaporated. In one scene, she threatens to yell “Rape!” if an argument isn’t ended. Apparently following Gone Girl, false accusations of sexual assault are the new trademark for Pike (I sincerely hope not).
The biggest flaw of What We Did on Our Holiday is that it never gives most of its characters to do much besides argue. Through this constant back and forth, we’re never allowed to know what potential positive qualities might be buried underneath layers of discontent. Having primarily worked in television comedy, you can see how some of the ideas from Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin might work in episodic form. Sadly, that same formula doesn’t translate to a feature film. It’s never as funny as it thinks it is nor does it present us a reason to really care about what everyone is arguing about. Since What We Did on Our Holiday is mostly comprised of arguing, there’s not much else for the film to stand on. But if you’re ever mired in family problems, just have some children conduct a Viking funeral for a dead relative and everything will work out all right. That makes sense, right?
What We Did on Our Holiday opens in select theaters and VOD on July 10th.