The Girl in the Café, the made-for-HBO film premiering this Saturday at 8 p.m. ET and re-airing throughout the month, test-drives Mary Poppins’ dictum about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine to go down. What Mary didn’t mention, though, is that although it may slide down your gullet a little quicker, the sugar/medicine combo still tastes like a gritty, gooey mess.
The film, written by Richard Curtis (who wrote the movies Love, Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill), is an explicitly didactic political exercise that places a sweet, old-fashioned love story against the backdrop of the upcoming G8 conference (the real-life conference is to be held in Gleneagles, Scotland, July 6-8 of this year, but the fictional one in the film takes place in Reykjavik, Iceland.) The idea, so far as I can make out, is to familiarize audiences with the stakes of the conference taking place next week, so that we can—what, bust into the keynote session, placards a-waving, and change the course of human history? You know what, it’s so crazy it just might work!
At least in this movie it might. Bill Nighy, who stole Curtis’ film Love, Actually as a washed-up but charismatic rock ’n’ roller, plays the opposite type here: He’s a painfully shy British bureaucrat named Lawrence (his official title is assistant to the chancellor of the exchequer) who finds himself falling for a much younger Scottish girl (Kelly McDonald) when the two meet by chance in a London coffeeshop. As their courtship begins, Lawrence is preparing to attend the G-8 summit in Reykjavik, which Nighy’s character defines as “a long shindig where the big-egg world leaders make plans for next year.” (Gina’s slacker response: “The only thing I know about Reykjavik is that Björk is from there.”) After a couple of awkward, fumbling dates, he impulsively invites her to join him for the conference in Iceland, where the two pursue their tentative romance in various hyper-modern restaurants and sterile hotel rooms.
But after perusing some of Lawrence’s research material on world poverty and the suffering of children, Gina gets on her high horse and starts pressing the G8 bigwigs—including, eventually, the prime minister himself—to pursue a more radical agenda for Third World aid, focusing on the Millenium Development Goals, a set of ambitious proposals for funding antipoverty programs that was put forth at a U.N. summit in 2000 and has been kicked around at international conferences ever since, without—surprise!—managing to eradicate world poverty.
In a preposterous climactic scene, the idealistic, soft-spoken Gina is asked to leave the conference after proselytizing a little too eloquently about the need to help African mothers (who, it seems, love their children just as much as “we” do. Who knew?). The idea that an international diplomatic event would be set on its head by a pretty girl making a painfully sincere speech at a black-tie dinner is more than silly; it’s counterproductive to this movie’s own goals. Rather than teaching us anything about the actual mechanics of conferences like the G8—the insider politics, the compromises and backroom deals, the interplay between governments, NGOs and international bodies—The Girl in the Café takes the simpler path of making us mad at all those mean, stodgy bureaucrats who just can’t see how bad poor people have it. The fact that the world’s top decision-makers are, almost universally, protected from the problems they gather to solve is of course one of the great ironies of history, and one more than worthy of treatment in a fiction film. What’s shameful is the way Curtis’ script cheapens that irony by suggesting that it’s just one good-hearted girl away from being eradicated forever.
Finally, The Girl in the Café has an odd habit of constantly insisting on how boring its own subject matter is. On one of the couple’s early dates, Gina feigns sleep as Lawrence describes his job at the exchequer’s. Later, at a G8 cocktail party, he warns her that “there are gold medalists in the boredom Olympics here.” The film’s assumption that HBO viewers will automatically find the workings of global politics far duller than the romantic disportments of two pasty Brits seems insulting to the audience’s intelligence.
All that said, Bill Nighy is very fine as the buttoned-up Lawrence, a man so taciturn that when he finally finds himself naked in bed with Gina, he can only stammer, “Don’t think because I’m not saying much that I wouldn’t like to say a lot.” Most of the time, though, his dialogue is nowhere near that good, tending heavily toward the dry recitation of depressing statistics. “Over 30,000 children die in extreme poverty every day” is one of Lawrence’s more effective pickup lines. Kelly McDonald has a quiet intensity as Gina, but her character is too pure of heart to be interesting, especially when, late in the film, she’s saddled with a tragic back story to help us understand why she cares about children so much.
The Girl in the Café is a treacly glob which even Nighy himself, promoting the activist angle of the film in an interview with Newsday, could only lukewarmly describe as “a perfectly respectable piece of comedy entertainment.” But its pedagogical dullness will come in handy on July 2, when CNN shows excerpts from the film in a one-hour special on global poverty and the G8 conference. Tony Blair, who has been sent a copy of the film, is expected to mention it in his interview during the special. This shameless instance of cross-promotion (CNN and HBO both share a parent company, Time Warner) might come as a shock to Gina, the purehearted heroine of The Girl in the Café, but it probably teaches us more about the back-scratching realpolitik of international conferences than the movie ever could.