In England, a quartet of randy teens named Will, Jay, Simon, and Neil are more popular than Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward and Bella, Sherlock Holmes, and Optimus Prime. In the U.S., it’s likely that moviegoers have never heard of them.
The bawdy British teen comedy The Inbetweeners Movie, based on the hit Channel 4 TV series of the same name, set box-office records when it premiered overseas last August. It scored the biggest ever U.K. opening for a comedy and went on to gross $71 million there, making it the third-highest grossing movie of the year, behind only the final Harry Potter film and The King’s Speech.
Among the juggernaut blockbusters it out-earned: Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight, Transformers 3, Sherlock Holmes, and Mission: Impossible. While the success of The Hangover Part II and Bridesmaids heralded the arrival of the lucrative R-rated comedy in the states, The Inbetweeners out-grossed both in the U.K.—on its way to earning $88 million internationally.
It took 13 months for The Inbetweeners Movie to make its stateside theatrical debut Sept. 7. But despite that box-office busting British success, it only opened in 10 theaters in this country, making it just the latest example of the struggle for British comedies, no matter how renowned or popular, to catch on in the U.S.
That doesn’t mean the team behind the hit series doesn’t have lofty expectations for its American run. “Have you heard of a film called The Avengers?” Iain Morris, the creator and writer of the series and writer and producer of the movie, asks The Daily Beast—albeit with a hearty laugh. His optimism is, to an extent, warranted. Opening the same weekend as Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford’s Cowboys and Aliens, “We were against literally James Bond and Indiana Jones and outselling them 20 to 1,” Simon Bird, who stars as above-it-all geek Will, tells The Daily Beast. But he’s still pragmatic: “We know it’s only opening on 10 screens. We’re well aware that it could sink without a trace.”
Yet the film has all the makings of a surefire American hit. It picks up where the series, which ran for three seasons, left off. Four geeky, horny teen boys named Jay, Neil, Simon, and Will set out on holiday to the party town of Malia, Crete. As the movie trots along, the deviants get caught masturbating, stumble into dumpy clubs, accidentally watch a male sex performer fellate himself, get drunk, throw up, strike out with girls, somehow end up naked and emasculated, and repeat. It’s like Superbad meets The Hangover, with a British accent. It would fit in the canon of raunchy teen comedies alongside American Pie and Road Trip.
It’s no accident. “So many films that [co-creator] Damon [Beesley] and I talked about as touchstones when we were writing the series are American,” Morris says. That also explains why the series and, by extension, the movie, took off across the Atlantic. “I think the reason it was successful in Britain was because nobody over there had seen the British equivalent of that before,” Bird says. “That was a new and original idea.”
But our culture doesn’t reciprocate. In the past three years, smart British comedies that have done admirable business abroad—Happy-Go-Lucky, Johnny English Reborn, In the Loop—have barely registered with American audiences. For all of its box-office power in the U.K., the stateside release of The Inbetweeners Movie is so quiet that to call it marginal would be like calling its sense of humor “a little blue.”
But raunch hasn’t been a deterrent for American audiences recently, anyway. When The Hangover II premiered, The Wall Street Journal wrote that it “set a new standard—or a new low, depending on your opinion—for full-frontal male nudity in big-budget studio films.” Legendary director Ivan Reitman predicted that the film’s success—and explicitness—would be a “last-frontier thing.”
The Hangover II went on to gross over $250 million in America. Bridesmaids, which features Kristen Wiig miming getting slapped in the face with a penis and Melissa McCarthy defecating in a sink, earned nearly $170 million. Even on the indie front, the new film Bachelorette starring Kristen Dunst and Isla Fisher takes a brief break from rampant drug use for a scene in which a male bodily fluid unfortunately stains a wedding dress. It just broke a record for becoming the number one VOD release on iTunes before it even hit theaters.
“The problem is that it’s not an arthouse British film,” says Morris. “But it’s got enough British slang that you might think American audiences won’t get it in a wide release.” Math supports his argument. One of the only two 2011 releases to beat The Inbetweeners’ box-office gross is The King’s Speech, which received an overlapping U.S. release that eventually scored $138 million domestically.
It’s not just the big screen that’s affected. The past decade is rife with attempts to introduce hit British TV series to the U.S. by Americanizing them, but the success rate has been pitiful—perhaps only The Office and Showtime’s Shameless worked out. Coupling, Skins, Free Agents: Huge in the U.K., one-season flops in the U.S. That hasn’t stopped execs from trying. The Inbetweeners actually just made its American debut on MTV, a near shot-for-shot, line-by-line re-creation of Morris’s version—only with hard “r”s and brighter colors.
Critics—the same ones who deplored MTV’s recent shot at Americanizing Skins—have kindly praised the U.S. version of The Inbetweeners, which Morris had no part in adapting, aside from directing the final episode. Its soft ratings, however, pale in comparison to strong MTV performers Teen Wolf and Awkward, and are more in line with 2010’s The Hard Times of RJ Berger, which only eked out two low-rated seasons.
Morris points to several reasons why an American version of a hit British show may not take off. In the case of The Inbetweeners, MTV dictates the content, so the exposed bums and foul mouths characteristic of the British series are gone. “It’s a less rude show,” Morris says. Bird agrees: “British comedy is rougher around the edges.” The American version is “slicker and glossier,” he says. As with the teen drama Skins, it was that British grittiness that was part of the allure to millions of teenage viewers. With that missing, it’s arguable that a key element of the show’s appeal is lost.
That’s precisely why the American release of the Inbetweeners film—with that British sensibility—is so exciting, according to The Atlantic Wire’s Richard Lawson. “For all the talk of Sherlock and Downton Abbey, such sleek and elegant affairs, it's nice to see the Brits get a bit rude,” he says. “In fact, in The Inbetweeners they come across as far less stuffy than us puritanical Americans. You can't say that on television here. Over there, you most certainly can.”
So though Morris’s Avengers-level goals for the film may not be met, another one—even if it’s just in 10 theaters—almost certainly will. “I’d love for the cinemas to be filled,” he says. “For me what comedy has cinematically is that there is nothing quite like sitting in a room full of people laughing at the same thing.” Once audiences pick their jaws up off the floor during a startlingly filthy self-pleasure scene that opens the movie, we imagine they will.