Based on Australian writer Kathy Lette's novel and featuring Anna Friel's first out-and-out starring role, Mad Cows should have been something of an event: a British comedy to brag about. Sadly, though, it's not. A rank-tasting cocktail of Carry On and The Monkees put in the blender at full pelt, Mad Cows is mad all right. It's just not very good.
The premise is fine: spunky Aussie takes on British penal and class systems while coming to terms with being a mum. And Lette's colourful language, if given space, should have lent enough flamboyance to make a half-decent comedy. The problem is the direction: Sara Sugarman is too self-consciously quirky, too eager to make a boisterous Britflick (you know it's a dog when Noel Gallagher's missus Meg Matthews and Harrods boss Mohamed Al Fayed share a scene). There's too much energy and not enough sense.
The result is a superannuated farce that demands more suspension of disbelief than a Benny Hill sketch. When both Friel and her baby are locked up after she's caught cooling her lactating breasts with a packet of frozen peas (the child even shares her cell), it's too ludicrous to be funny. Worst of all, everything happens at such a frantic pace that the dialogue (surely the reason for adapting the book in the first place) gets garbled in the mix.
Once you're over the shock of her (half-decent) Aussie accent and heaving (presumably false) breasts, Friel brings her customary freshness to the role of Maddy, while Lumley, as the upper-class con woman whose maternal instincts come too late, presents a magnificent, human version of Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Someone should have taken Friel, Lumley and cinematographer Pierre Aim (of La Haine fame) and made another - much funnier, much warmer - little comedy.
It looks like a dream, has good performances and tons of classy British star power. But you still want to walk out after 10 minutes. This is in desperate need of an American script doctor/gag writer and a director with a little restraint.