For as important to the history of music as the Pet Shop Boys are - they have quietly become the most successful duo of all time - few people even know of the existence of their lone cinematic effort, and even fewer have seen it. Is this a bad thing? Even most of their fans say "no", and having seen it, it's hard to disagree with them. It Couldn't Happen Here is not a good movie, nor is it really an important movie. But from a certain perspective, it can possibly be considered an interesting movie. Maybe, in its own way, even interesting enough to recommend to the right type of movie lover.
ICHH is essentially an 82 minute music video using most of the Pet Shop Boys catalog, which at that point consisted of two albums plus their excellent cover of Always On My Mind, which would appear on their third. That is part of the movie's weakness. They simply didn't have enough music to do this concept justice. Songs repeat, both in part and in full. Some songs are recited as spoken word poetry after having heard them in full, often sounding just silly in addition to redundant. At one point the title song, with lyrics, plays above dialogue, leaving the viewer unsure where to focus. This is a curious disconnect for a duo who has made their living from knowing how to entice through music.
An early scene highlights this dissonance, while at the same time perhaps making the point of the movie. An apparently schoolboy version of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are watching a ferris wheel spin round, with one car after another filled with some type of adult idiocy gliding by. The closest the movie has to a plot has the Boys traveling the countryside encountering all manners of such absurdity, while Tennant, the duo's vocalist, sends postcards home about what it was like growing up; and in the process, most of what he describes winds up getting re-played out in front of him, like some recurrent nightmare. By the time we get to the dummy that waxes existentialist over the meaning of time in a cafe, we get what we think is the central theme: life, for those two, has been ridiculous, confusing, and horrifically boring from the start. And, rather than try to explain why, they have simply dealt with it all by being amused and detached from the whole spectacle, watching it all with a quiet and usually sad humor. And Tennant and Lowe are inviting you along so you can see it the same way for a little while.
This is all well and good, and certainly makes for a unique experience. It also makes it one we can empathize with: we've known half these clowns. But that said, it still doesn't make it a good experience. An early scene shows Lowe packing his bags and running away from it all. Well yes, a great many of us have run away from it all as well. So why are we now running back to it?
Neil Tennant has been quoted about this movie that it made him realize "one thing, that he couldn't act". Admirable though it is, I can fortunately disagree with this humility. Tennant and Lowe both do fine, even if it is only in the playing of themselves. We see them in the film as we see them just about everywhere else: silent, contemplative, a bit aloof without almost ever smiling, and Tennant occasionally punctuating the silence with singing, in his uniquely soothing voice. And when that starts, we're reminded why we put this film on. The Pet Shop Boys are fantastic musicians. As each song opens, it's hard not to sing along, even if almost none of the songs are about anything uplifting (of course, if you're no fan of them in the first place this point is moot ... but then, why the heck are you watching this?). Their brooding may not work as cinema, but it works fantastically as music. The movie's title track, a slow theatrical piece, sets a wonderful and appropriate mood for the film (even if, again, we hear it too much). And the song Rent, one of their most critically acclaimed, is put to a very elegant dance number - and since this movie is unreal right from the start, we don't even question it.
When we come to movie's conclusion in the dance hall with the Boys assuming their role as DJs, we see that this is where they have led us: the same path they were on themselves. No, we don't understand the point of the mass murderer masquerading as a on-and-off blind preacher, or a pilot screaming about dividing by zero while inexplicably mowing down our heroes in their car. They don't either. But whatever it meant, it got us to the disco. Here, it all makes sense. All of that is left behind. Here, just the music matters, just the feeling. The closing track "One More Chance" seals it: this is where they get to try again, and do this time do it their way.
Understanding this theme, can I recommend the movie? Not really. At the same time, there is far worse you can watch, and certainly you're not going to find all that many movies as unique as this. So in that sense, especially if you want to understand where the Pet Shop Boys are going with their primary profession, you could do worse with your time, and it is short as movies go. No, I can't really say that their method of dealing with the madness of civilization by being detached from it all is what I would do: on some level, I think this just feeds into exactly the problem that they themselves are reacting to. And yet, like the path of countless artists before them, this has led them to create some works of true beauty. So as we see them in their element, we listen to their preferred craft, and we see the crowd dancing in tune to them, it's hard not to be left with one admitting conclusion:
"Hey... if it works for you..."