‘Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break’ is Delicious & Filling [SXSW 2021]

by Warren Cantrell on March 17, 2021

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Now playing at SXSW Online 2021

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Sometimes the most tender moments are born out of the absurd, when an audience is thrown off-balance by gore or fireballs and thus can’t quite track the gut-punch on its way in.

Rooted in the ridiculous, and flanked by broad performances on all sides, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break manages to have its blood-splattered cake and eat it too, crafting a small, manic comedy that sports laughs, gasps, and sentimental hand clasps in equal measure. A “one bad day” yarn with surprising character depth for its lead, the film spares time to comment on influencer culture, bullying, family, grief, and good old-fashioned revenge, and is a blast every step of the way.

Middle-aged Englishman Paul Dood (Tom Meeten) isn’t exactly living the high life, but you wouldn’t know it from his unflappable optimism and joie de vivre. Paul is single and lives with his “mum” (June Watson), who is her son’s biggest fan, and the pair enjoy a loving and supportive dynamic filled with pep talks and tea breaks. Although he works at a thrift shop, Paul dreams of honing his singing and dancing skills to the point where he can successfully audition for a national talent competition. When Paul realizes the local audition is a week earlier than he had anticipated, he rushes across town to make it there with his mum, who insists on attending and cheering on the sequin-clad hopeful despite her precarious, pill-reliant medical condition.

Encounters with five different jerks on the way to the audition keep Paul and his mother from making it there on-time, however, and a series of devastating calamities befall the pair when they do eventually arrive at the auditorium. After suffering something of a mental breakdown as a result, Paul resolves to take revenge on the five people that ruined his big day, setting off on a livestreamed Twitch-like broadcast during his lunch break. And while Paul has some devilishly gruesome ideas about what he’ll do to these five rogues, his inherent goodness and natural aversion to violence keeps derailing his plans.

A comic farce that isn’t afraid to spill some blood and brain matter, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break allows its eponymous lead to work through the trauma of his very bad day via a series of gruesome deaths that escalate matters for the characters and audience alike. Although his little revenge quest is very much for him, Paul’s live streaming of the increasingly grisly events grant him the public following he’d always dreamed of, and while it isn’t for his singing and dancing, fame is fame. As each encounter escalates matters for Paul and brings him more attention, the film keeps pace so that the audience continues to absorb each new shock with a balanced mixture of surprise, disgust, and glee.  

The efficiency of the script is feather in the movie’s cap, and while some of the side characters are sketched with a broad brush, the core elements buttressing Paul’s journey and his relationship with his mother remain strong. Indeed, it takes just one or two scenes between the pair to establish their profoundly loving and supportive dynamic, and informs the earnest nature of not just Paul, but what the audition and his mother mean to him. It would have been easier to paint Paul as the perpetually lost and disconnected man-child archetype, a-la Will Farrell, etc., yet this film dares to go deeper. Paul knows he’s something of a loser and a lost cause, but he presses ahead with his dreams as a way to keep his mother happy, giving the whole effort a decidedly sweet undercurrent.

Director Nick Gillespie co-wrote the script, and he deserves credit for weaving a raucous, gory slate of deaths within a decidedly charming and uplifting story with something to say. Bad things happen to Paul and his mother, and the five people he’s targeting in the back half of the movie do share some of that blame, yet healing begins only after Paul finds some peace within himself and gets back to the thing that sent him on his journey in the first place. Paul is confronted with his demons along the way, and like Hercules’ labors, he must find a way to defeat them all in his own way before he can find a way home again.

The irony of Paul accidentally falling into online celebrity is a no-brainer, narrative-wise, yet Gillespie manages to craft the right balance within the story to pair it with an exploration of grief that underpins the larger effort. Similar in tone to Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, with shades of Shaun of the Dead thrown in for its genre bending and surprising heart, the movie walks a bit of a tightrope style-wise yet remains rooted in Paul’s journey to ascend to his best self. A B-plot about a local constable, PCSO Miles (Mandeep Dhillon), acts as a wonderful counterpoint to Paul’s trek, and further reinforces the importance of trusting in one’s self despite the sneers and jabs of bullies. It also provides some real-world context for the larger story and ties up some of the loose ends of the script’s basic conceit.

And while the “villains” of the piece do come across as somewhat cartoonish at times, they don’t detract from the drama, and only occasionally throw the viewer out of the moment with schtick. As the film works its way to its rousing, action-packed finale, the audience finds themselves fully along for the ride like the legions of live-streaming viewers glued to their screens, watching Paul as he inches closer to his surprising destiny. Meeten shines as the perpetually sweet, down-but-not-out artist with a song in his heart, who struggles to overcome the grief of the first act via a classic revenge fantasy that gradually bends to his good-natured will. A little silly, yet with its themes and character arcs positioned just right, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break is a gory revenge flick with heart that dances to its own tune, much like the middle-aged hero at the center of it all.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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