The British black comedy Keeping Mum boasts a knockout premise and a knockout cast. So why isn't it a knockout? Probably because screenwriter Richard Russo and co-screenwriter/director Niall Johnson can't seem to decide whether they're making a misanthropic cartoony satire populated by outsized caricatures, or a low-key, character-based comedy of manners. The performances mirror the film's identity crisis. As a big-hearted vicar too oblivious to notice that his home has devolved into a den of sin and iniquity, Rowan Atkinson gives an ingratiatingly low-key, naturalistic performance. Patrick Swayze, meanwhile, mugs shamelessly as a golf-pro lothario who spends most of his time attending to the carnal needs of sexually frustrated wives, including Atkinson's longsuffering, acid-tongued spouse Kristin Scott Thomas.
In a plot that suggests Mary Poppins reconceived as a homicide-positive black comedy, Maggie Smith plays a cheerfully murderous housekeeper who sets up shop in Atkinson's household and sets about improving his life through strategic murder. Soon, Smith is doling out her unique brand of unforgiving cosmic justice to bullies, yammering neighbor dogs, and randy voyeurs, while the clueless Atkinson learns to believe in himself.
Keeping Mum has an agreeably twisted plot that's compromised throughout by leaden pacing and a fatal attack of the cutes. Russo negotiated these dark waters smoothly in his screenplay for last year's The Ice Harvest, but Keeping Mum never really gets going, and it inches to the finish line like a narcoleptic turtle. It delivers a few mild chuckles, but the cast and plot promise much, much more, then never deliver. The filmmakers seem to tacitly endorse Smith's reign of semi-benevolent terror, but like so many of the film's gags, the central sick joke—that a little murder can right any wayward household—is never anywhere near as funny it should be.