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Non-Review Review: People Just Do Nothing – Big in Japan

People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan has had an interesting journey to the big screen.

People Just Do Nothing began as an online video series, before transitioning to BBC Three and then to BBC Two. The mockumentary comedy accrued a cult following, and so it’s refreshing to see much of the cast and crew given the chance to take the concept to a cinematic adaptation. There’s something inherently charming in this comedy concept built around a bunch of unqualified (and perhaps even untalented) local pirate DJs getting to make their own feature film that takes the characters and the cast to Japan. (It is also, for example, fascinating to see the characters fronting an anti-piracy public service announcement.)

The band at a crossroads.

Big in Japan has a lot of work to do, both in appealing to fans of the series and in winning over potential new converts. The movie is designed to function both as a culmination of the characters’ journey and paradoxically as an introduction to the characters. It’s a lot to ask from a feature film, particularly a comedy, and Big in Japan occasionally stumbles under the weight of those competing demands. Big in Japan is at its weakest when it’s trying to craft a story that is at once a satisfying development for long-term followers these characters while also being universal enough to work for audiences new to this world.

Big in Japan works best in its smaller moments, when it commits to individual jokes rooted in particular character. It falters when it sacrifices those strengths in the hopes of advancing the big picture. Big in Japan is arguably at its best when it goes small, a lesson that the film tries to impart to its own characters.

Toasts of Tokyo.

The concept of People Just Do Nothing is familiar. It is the story of four young men and their manager from Brentford in London. The five central characters are all archetypes, which makes it easier for Big in Japan to orientate new viewers within the world. Anthony “MC Grindah” Zografos is the group’s leader, and the member most committed to the idea of success. Kevin “DJ Beats” Bates is Anthony’s frequently put-upon best friend, prone to malapropisms. Steven “Steves” Green is the shy, drug-obsessed teen. Decoy is the quiet straight man. Chabud “Chabuddy G” Gul is the group’s manager and failed entrepreneur.

The structure of People Just Do Nothing is the sort of wry and detached mockumentary that has become a fixture of British comedy, particularly in the wake of The Office. It is a format that lends itself to interrogating delusions of grandeur, of juxtaposing a character’s self-image with stark reality. Most of the characters in People Just Do Nothing play as grifters and hustlers. At one point, Chabud sells his van to four different buyers to afford his ticket to Japan, leaving the keys in the driver’s seat and deciding that whoever gets there first can have it. However, the group’s biggest delusion is ultimately self-delusion.

A step up to the big time.

As a theatrical adaptation of a cult comedy television show, Big in Japan falls back on the classic device of taking these television characters out of their familiar surroundings and sending them on an adventure around the world. This is a particularly common approach to selling British comedy characters to audiences, with examples including Kevin and Perry Go Large, The Inbetweeners Movie, The Inbetweeners 2, and Mr. Bean’s Holiday.

There are any number of reasons for this apporach to theatrical adaptations. On a rather basic level, it allows the cast and crew to take a holiday together after spending years working on the same project. From a financial standpoint, the international setting adds a sense of scale and spectacle that helps to differentiate the feature film from a weekly television comedy. More to the point, it’s always fun to push characters out of their comfort zones, and going abroad adds a convenient “fish out of water” hook to these kinds of stories that contrasts neatly with the safety and familiarity of the classic sitcom template. It feels like a big deal.

Lost in Translation.

From a narrative perspective, the idea of taking characters away from the established parametres of the sitcom concept is also a way to welcome new viewers into the film. The characters in People Just Do Nothing are already a fact of life in Brentford, but dropping them into Japan provides an opportunity to take a step back and recontextualise the ensemble for viewers who are less familiar with the original television series. The idea of a group of young pirate radio station DJs navigating Japanese culture and business is a big enough break from the television series that all viewers need a slight reorientation.

Big in Japan doubles down on this approach to adapting a cult comedy for the big screen. Not only does the film employ the classic “fish out of water” holiday comedy premise, it is also built around the classic “lovable losers finally get their shot at the big time” approach that worked so well in other television-to-cinema adaptations like Wayne’s World or Wayne’s World 2. The central premise of Big in Japan is that the gang at Kurupt FM has become an unlikely breakout hit in Japan, prompting a Japanese company to fly the group over to capitalise on their success.

Carry on Karaoke.

While the concept is far from original, this structure is smart and practical. It allows Big in Japan to hit the ground running with a minimum amount of fuss, and provides a framework that ensures that audience members with no grounding in People Just Do Nothing can follow along. After all, audiences don’t necessarily need to understand the exact history between Anthony and Kevin to get that the two function very similar to Wayne and Garth, with Kevin placing a lot of trust in his partner while struggling to properly articulate his own wants and desires.

At the same time, the set-up is perhaps too efficient. Big in Japan is built so obviously around these familiar set-ups that most of the movie’s set-ups and pay-offs are telegraphed from the moment that individual characters arrive on screen. When the band are introduced to the smooth-talking and charismatic executive Taka, who immediately begins to marginalise and isolate Chabud, audience members immediately recognise the character as the same sort of sleazy producer played by Rob Lowe in Wayne’s World or Christopher Walken in Wayne’s World 2.

A familiar dance.

Similarly, when the group’s diminutive personal assistant, Miki, starts finding excuses to spend time around the naive and childlike Steven, it is immediately clear that there is going to be a romantic subplot built around the two characters. Unfortunately, that extended subplot is built around a single joke stretched across the runtime, the idea that Miki is very much into Steven, but Steven is completely and comically oblivious to her interest because he is an overgrown child.

Big in Japan is at its weakest when it’s doing the actual storytelling necessary to move the narrative forward. The basic set-up of the movie is clearly just a skeleton that exists to justify taking the characters to Japan, to account for the film’s budget, and to provide a framework for individual extended comedy setpieces. However, Big in Japan invests far too heavily in what is a fairly basic plot for a movie like this. Inevitably, Taka begins to manipulate the band. Inevitably, Anthony and Kevin end up at odds. Inevitably, Anthony finds himself caught between the commercial success that he covets and any individual credibility.

Managing without.

This isn’t a bad way to approach a story like this. After all, given the gradual evolution of People Just Do Nothing from a web comedy to a feature film, it’s easy to understand why that struggle to balance financial autonomy with artistic integrity would be an interesting angle into a project like this. At one point, explaining the decision to change the band’s name, Anthony explains, “It sounds like a pirate radio station.” Kevin replies, angrily, “But that’s what we are.” Anthony bluntly responds, “Not anymore.”

However, despite the extent to which this plot dominates the movie’s runtime, it struggles to find anything particularly insightful to say. It borders on cliché, and not in the self-aware way. At the climax of Big in Japan, Anthony alienates all of his collaborators and realises that he has betrayed everything that he once believed in him. He cries out for his friends, only to be told that they don’t like him anymore. He responds, “I don’t like me anymore.” This is as close at the movie gets to profound insight.

It all (Ja)panned out quite nicely.

In contrast, Big in Japan works best when it allows itself to luxuriate in particular jokes or sketches nestled within the framework of the larger narrative structure. Like a lot of modern comedy, Big in Japan is surprisingly willing to wallow in how awful and shallow its characters are. When Anthony announces plans to go to Japan, his wife eagerly boasts of her ambition to “take in the culture by taking selfies everywhere.” This leads to an amusing – but somewhat abrupt and truncated – subplot in which Anthony leaves his wife behind, and she has to fake a Japanese holiday for social media from her friend’s London apartment.

Similarly, the movie really comes alive whenever Asim Chaudhry is onscreen as Chabud. There’s a wonderful early joke involving Chabud’s passport that is set-up and paid off with considerable charm, and the nature of the film means that Chabud largely gets his own extended and isolated subplot in the second half of the film as he is displaced by Taka’s machinations. These sequences are largely disconnected from the main plot of the movie, and occasionally feel improvised, but they also feel somewhat freer for that fact. Chabud’s sequences don’t feel as constrained as the bulk of the movie’s plot.

On top of the world.

Big in Japan has the look and the feel of a largely improvised comedy. Much of the film involves characters talking over one another, tripping over their words, trying to heighten and escalate premises that they’ve been handed. It very much feels like the actors and characters are both more comfortable operating in that space – when sets of characters are bouncing off one another within sequences that have little to do with the larger story being told. Whenever Big in Japan has to move the plot along, it ironically loses any real sense of momentum.

There’s a lot of roguish charm at play in People Just Do Nothing. Unfortunately, that charm gets suffocated under a very conventional and very familiar structure.

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