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Peter's Friends

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Unless I’m mistaken, a lot of the critics complaining that Peter’s Friends is just a shallow knockoff of The Big Chill are the same ones who griped that The Big Chill was a shallow knockoff of Return of the Secaucus 7. (Has anyone taken a look at Secaucus 7 lately? It’s probably the most glib — and certainly the least well acted — of the three.) Directed by the brashly versatile Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Dead Again), Peter’s Friends, about six Cambridge chums who reunite 10 years after graduation at an English country estate, is a slick comic soap opera that revels in its own superficiality. That’s its limitation and its charm. By now, this sort of my-generation ensemble comedy is virtually its own genre — it’s bedroom farce meets group therapy — and Branagh, working from a thin but witty script by comedian Rita Rudner (who costars) and her husband, Martin Bergman, has come up with a clever, irritating, satisfying entertainment built around that cherished theme of baby boomers: the secret dread of realizing you can’t be a kid forever.

The characters are really just collections of traits. There’s the host, Peter (Stephen Fry), a courtly, bisexual rich boy whose flowery wit seems to place him in another century — he’s like a homespun Oscar Wilde. Branagh himself plays Andrew, a cheerfully misanthropic sitcom writer trapped in a hostile marriage to the star of his hit series, a neurotic Southern California princess (Rudner). Two of the old friends are single women: the naive, repressed Maggie (Emma Thompson), a flower-waiting-to-bloom who has fixed her romantic sights on Peter, and the sophisticated, insatiable Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel), who has brought along her latest flame, a loutish but charming prole (Tony Slattery) who tells wretched off-color jokes. Then there are Mary and Roger (Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie), married jingle writers whose bond has been stretched to the breaking point by the death of one of their infant twins.

What can characters as instantly scannable as these do but make merry, reveal how they truly feel about one another, patch things up, and walk away Happier and Wiser? Set to an infectious pop soundtrack (Cyndi Lauper, Tears for Fears) that effectively renders this the first ’80s-nostalgia flick, Peter’s Friends won’t win over anyone looking for depth — as drama, it’s pure popcorn — but the vignettes are swept along by Branagh’s richly theatrical temperament and by the exuberant wit of the cast. Fry, for instance, knows how , to play up Peter’s veddy British dandyism without slipping into caricature. Thompson, as always, is a delight — she makes Maggie’s frumpy earnestness funny and beguiling at the same time — and Branagh hits the movie’s comic high point when Andrew, a recovering alcoholic, gets reacquainted with the bottle and throws a sputteringly profane tantrum. The movie has a few icky, false moments, but Branagh, for the most part, understands the value of silliness. In Peter’s Friends, he’s content to spark giggles of recognition. B

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