SXSW REVIEW: ‘Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break’ (2021) is Silly in the Best of Ways

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break is a bizarre cat-and-mouse chase that’s fun, adrenaline-inducing, and occasionally uninspired.”

Paul Dood (Tom Meeten), the titular character of Nick Gillespie’s Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break, has had a very bad day. When we first meet him he’s preparing for a talent competition, live streaming to a total of zero people about his aspirations. It makes sense that a man in his mid-40s is often berated for dreaming about a life usually reserved for teenagers, but Paul is determined to keep his chin up, bolstered by reverent support from his sick mother. The ridicule worsens at work, where a coworker mocks and teases Paul, yet his eye never moves from the prize; except, of course, when he mistakes the date of the competition and is forced to leave work early, return home, change into his eccentric costume, grab his mom, and head to the auditions. However, a series of comic mishaps that involve his coworker, a train manager, a priest, and an Asia-obsessed restaurant owner means that Paul does not make the audition in time, and his bubble is further burst by the arrogant and intransigent competition host, Jack Tapp (Kevin Bishop), who derides Paul for an apparent lack of talent. The rest of the film is Paul ’s attempt at revenge, all in one bloody, highly fantastical lunch break. 

A movie this nonsensical simply shouldn’t work. Gillespie really stretches the limits of believability, allowing the film to casually slip into a wild farcicality that you can’t turn away from. It is silly in the best of ways, even as it crumbles under the weight of its own bizarreness. Evoking the early works of Edgar Wright – another eccentric Brit whose penchant for naughty, satirical parodies culminating in bloodied hijinks has availed us one of the century’s greatest comedies in Hot FuzzPaul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break is a spectacularly entertaining, if sometimes repetitive, portrait of a man dealing with grief bubbling over from past grievances he’s bent on rectifying. Not interested in any real growth from his pain and loss, Paul is hung up on the one stage of grief that exists for the thrill of his growing viewing audience: anger. Turns out he’s even a failure at expressing said anger and getting revenge on those who’ve wronged him.

An hour into the film, a character about to purchase a comic book in a store asks the salesperson if he has a comic that’s “less far-fetched.” Lackadaisical and cheeky, the salesperson responds, “It’s a comic book, it’s meant to be far-fetched.” Somehow, that one line encapsulates the entirety of Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break – an elaborate string of bloody antics pumping from one murder to the next without care for thematic purpose or character evolution. In a way, that is the film’s greatest strength – it doesn’t pretend to be any deeper than its shenanigans, but its surface-level structure with crumbs of a richer story leaves much to be desired. Gillespie’s commitment to painting his lead character as an unwavering underdog we’re supposed to root for wholeheartedly fails to provide any nuance to the character and the film itself.

Which isn’t to say we don’t root for Paul – Meeten gives the character great heart, playing him with abject innocence and a hopeful disposition of the world and the people in it that is slowly shattered until he descends into a Joker-like ugliness. Anyone on the outside can see that Paul’s dreams are a dead-end, but there’s zero doubt in Meeten’s performance, striving for something he can see but will almost certainly never touch. Paul’s nearly obsessive desire to acquire fame is as much an indictment of the social media milieu he finds himself, as it is an indication of his failure to see outside his own grievances (even when he’s at fault). Where the film falters is that it merely highlights those points as though it were ticking off a list, but provides no interesting commentary regarding Paul’s state of mind, leaving Meeten to carry much of the weight; and much of the time, it doesn’t prove sufficient enough to compensate for the rest of the film’s shortcomings.

Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break doesn’t really amount to more than a sum of its parts (each part proving more nonsensical than the one before), but Gillespie works each end till – not unlike his lead character – he convinces us of a value that never really materializes. Still, as an enjoyable collection of humorous stunts and escapades, the film fires on all cylinders. It’s a body with adrenaline-rushing, deliciously choreographed dance of chases and swords and awkward David Bowie impersonations. If only Gillespie would peel back the skin of the body to reveal the full depth of his film, then Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break might’ve even been deadlier.

Director: Nick Gillespie

Producer: Finn Bruce

Cast: Tom Meeten, Kris Marshall, Johnny Vegas, Katherine Parkinson

Header image courtesy of SXSW