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Workers of the World, Untie!

This has been a rough year at the movies for British working stiffs, but a great year for feel-good stories of their redemption.

In the art house hit Brassed Off, coal miners cut loose from their jobs by Thatcherite economics found solace and self-respect in the endurance of the company's brass band, and everybody left the theater humming. As if to play can-you-top-this?, The Full Monty gives us half a dozen sacked steelworkers in grimy Sheffield who reinvent themselves -- let's not raise the standard of credibility too high here, okay? -- as male strippers cavorting in red vinyl G-strings before a packed, cheering house.

There's no sound reason to choose between these two buoyant, bright, thoroughly enjoyable movies. They're destined to wind up as a future double feature anyway -- as long as some nostalgic wit of an exhibitor is still interested in running a double feature. By the way, that's exhibitor.

To business, lasses and mates.
Monty's cast of downtrodden characters, dreamed up by writer Simon Beaufoy and directed by newcomer Peter Cattaneo, has the kind of quirky balance every bittersweet comedy's searching for. Gaz (Robert Carlyle) is a skinny blond joker who can't pay his child support anymore but clearly loves his boy Nathan. Dave (Mark Addy) is a pudgy bloke for whom unemployment and sexual impotence are one and the same. Horse (Paul Barber) is an aging African-Englishman with a dodgy hip, but the man can still do a passable funky chicken. Gerald (Tom Wilkinson) is the haughty ex-foreman of the others, but the sack has left him bereft, too: Between his spendthrift wife and his deep-down shame, he becomes one of the boys.

Are they and their pals destined for greatness? Probably not. But these bush-league Chippendales may be able to hold their heads high for one night even as they drop their socks.

When they're not mucking about in lavish historic epics or brilliant thrillers, British moviemakers have always liked gathering around the kitchen sink. This is to say that from the time of the Angry Young Men in the '50s to the current woes of beleaguered British workers, homegrown directors have paid attention to their plight. Good for them. Because there's even more to take heed of these days: With high spirit and sharp wit, The Full Monty (Brit slang for going all the way) takes on such issues as the evolving relationships of men and women in an uncertain economy, the nature of sexuality and the primal drive for self-determination. The movie has not a fleck of pretension, but this good stuff's all in there, seamlessly wedded to the laughs.

In the end, the steelworkers of "Hot Metal (We Dare to Be Bare)" don't literally bust their butts rehearsing and reshaping their expectations (that's the real "full monty") for a lark. They do it out of necessity, and that's what gives them the dignity that endears each one of them to us. The thick fogs of local slang and dialect may baffle those on this side of the Atlantic, but the movie's interior, emotional life is already so vivid that we really don't need to know that the "bog" is the men's room, "nowt" is nothing and that the "widger" or the "willy" is none other than the male member.

Forget ears. Director Cattaneo has an eye. Waiting in the disheartening jobless line, a couple of the fledgling dancers can't help shaking that thing the second an old Donna Summer disco tune comes blaring out of the box. It's a liberation scene straight out of another summer hit, the Japanese import Shall We Dance? When the self-conscious Dave sneaks out to the shed to coil Saran Wrap around his ample torso, he's also munching on a chocolate bar.

The actors are uniformly superb here (including Gaz's lovable kid, played by William Snape), but the bewildered Gerald, a man of the gabardine-suit and ski-vacation class, may win best-in-show. The disbelief in his face when the repo men haul off his TV set and his portable tanning bed is something to behold, and so is his inevitable bonding with the blokes he for so long ordered around like chattel. We're all in this together, the movie tells us, and we must now lay bare our souls.

Of such perfect little wonders is the grand finale built. It wouldn't do to reveal too much about that, except to say that when Cattaneo puts his nervous troupe of amateurs up there on stage before 400 screaming women (wives and girlfriends invited), what might have been sordid or foolish blossoms into an affirmation of life no less genuine than the final concert in Brassed Off or the last waltz in Shall We Dance? We see these minor heroes in the flesh -- but as though from the inside out.

The Full Monty.
Directed by Peter Cattaneo. With Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Addy, Paul Barber, Lesley Sharp and William Snape.

Rated R.
95 minutes.

 
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