Comedy is notorious for its tendency to get lost in translation and while it’s entirely possible that Jos Stelling’s 1999 tragicomic farce, NO TRAINS NO PLANES will have Dutch audiences rolling in the aisles, the film’s strange brand of surreal sentimental slapstick will likely leave British viewers cold.
Set in a gloomy Dutch pub over the course of a working day, the film focuses on Gerard, a down-on-his-luck loveable loser, and his increasingly futile (and absurd) attempts to enjoy one last night with his eccentric drinking buddies before committing suicide. Over the course of the day he will reconcile with his estranged brother Mario, become a local celebrity, win the affections of a fickle love interest and aid the police in the capture of a violent German criminal.
Despite these colourful plot machinations and an accomplished cast of larger-than-life characters, the film often feels uneven and laboured, unsure as to whether it’s a touching, bittersweet tragedy about loneliness and wasted life or a side-splitting, life-affirming comedy about seizing the day and making connections. As a consequence the comedy falls flat and the tragedy lacks punch, resulting in a sporadically entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying work that is the victim of its own ambition.
Tragicomedy is the hardest genre to get right and despite some nice touches (Bervoets’ cartoonish performance as bequiffed Mario, an unusually sophisticated ‘people are too complex to be pigeonholed’ theme, Stelling’s eye for a striking image) NO TRAINS NO PLANES doesn’t quite manage to pull it off.