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"Comfortably Numb" (2004) TV Movie
Too Much in the Mix
Television's latest addiction is the mixing of substances. Channel 4's series Missing Chink this week interleaves sitcom and documentary to examine life for Britain's Chinese community and, at the same address, Comfortably Numb finds the admired documentary-maker Leo Regan (who made 100% White) mixing up actors and actuality in a drama-doc about an addiction clinic.
Regan employs two actors - Hans Matheson and Rebecca Palmer - to play out the fictional story of Jake, an alcoholic, and Emma, a crack-head, who meet in rehab and fall in love or, anyway, crave sex with each other. The counsellors and other patients, however, are played by recovering addicts and counsellors at the Promis clinic. Therapy sessions are improvised around Regan's storyline.
This mixed casting proves to be the closing of a padlock rather than the opening of a door. Comfortably Numb is a good example of how combining drama and documentary within the same piece tends to remove the strengths of each genre while retaining the weaknesses.
The questions a factual report might have considered - the frequent invocation of "God" in 12-step cures, the question of whether some counsellors have become addicted to their power over other addicts - are ignored in this format, while the "case histories" of the two main characters are weakened by the fact that they are actors' improvisations rather than factual pathologies. Similarly, sanctimonious investigations of "compulsive helping" and "compulsive exercise" - which you would take in a conventional script as a send-up of therapy's earnestness - are here being spoken by counsellors supposedly being themselves.
The losses from this crossing of genres are best demonstrated in a scene in which Emma reveals her sexual abuse by an uncle in her childhood. The other addicts listen and one comments: "that's really brave". This scene might have worked if everyone was Equity or everyone civilian, but the combination of the two gives you the uneasy sense of people who have genuinely shown courage being asked to applaud a Rada acting exercise. In later sequences, when the non-actors are given their big scenes, you worry about how sensible it is for recovering addicts to be pretending to snort coke or harm themselves.
The scenes between the thespians suggest that Regan should have had the nerve to go for all-out drama. There's a brilliantly played sex scene in which Emma's disgust at Jake's insincere post-coital "I love you" reveals whole volumes about the damaged psychologies of both.
But, as Winston Churchill is reputed to have complained about a member of parliament called "Bossom"- or, in some versions, "Cunis" - the problem with this drama-documentary is that it's neither one thing nor the other.
Comfortably Numb is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 10.35pm
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