DAVID BIANCULLI

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HBO's 'Life's Too Short': Once Again, Ricky Gervais Explores Unease as an Art Form
February 17, 2012  | By David Bianculli
 
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The newest scripted Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant collaboration, HBO's Life's Too Short, features many of the same elements as their previous TV triumphs, The Office and Extras -- with one small exception.

That exception is British actor Warwick Davis, the central focus of this new comic mockumentary series. He's 3'6" -- and, playing a condensed version of the put-upon characters played by Gervais himself in his previous sitcoms, Davis, as an exaggerated caricature of himself, is dryly, drolly delightful...

Life's Too Short, an HBO-BBC co-production televised in Great Britain last year, premieres Sunday night at 10:30 ET on HBO. Its Sunday placement is an indication of the network's respect for, and faith in, Gervais -- but its later-at-night placement is a hint that even HBO may regard this new series as a bit iffy in topic and tone.

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In Life's Too Short, Davis plays "himself" the same way Larry David plays his TV alter ego on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both the TV and actual Warwick Davis share the same credits: acting inside an Ewok costume in Star Wars, starring as the tiny protagonists of the fantasy film Willow and the Leprechaun movie series, and appearing as Professor Flitwick in several Harry Potter films.

Also, both the TV and actual Davis are friends with Gervais and Merchant, and both run talent agencies specializing in the placement of little people in films and television. On Life's Too Short, Davis' firm is called Dwarves for Hire. In actuality, he's co-founder of Willow Management, which has been in operation since 1995.

But from those common threads are spun a tapestry of comic exaggeration. The TV version of Warwick Davis is vain, petulant, clueless, desperate and constantly put-upon and put down. He is constantly, to use the word carefully, belittled.

And in that regard, this documentary captures him in every uncomfortable moment, just as unflinchingly as The Office caught David Brent and Extras nailed Andy Millman.

Life's Too Short, in fact, could just as easily have been a spinoff of Extras, had Gervais and Merchant chosen to have Warwick Davis meet Gervais' Andy Millman on a TV or film set, rather than visit the "real" Gervais in his office. Both Extras and Life's Too Short document (mock-document, really) the voracious, consuming quest for fame, and the indignities people will endure just to interact with, and become, celebrities.

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In the first three episodes of Life's Too Short, those celebrities -- also playing caricatures of themselves -- include Johnny Depp, who hires Warwick for a week so he can observe him as research for a film role, and Helena Bonham Carter, who finds Warwick too distracting to act opposite (at least without sticking him in a garbage can).

Funny bits, both, but the killer comes in Sunday's premiere, when Warwick finds himself in Ricky and Stephen's office at the same time as Liam Neeson. Warwick isn't exactly a welcome visitor, but neither is Liam, who's shown up because he wants -- demands -- to expand his acting range and do some exercises in improvisational comedy.

But Liam is so spectacularly unfunny, so crushingly serious, that every moment of improv leads to a comedy dead end about AIDS or cancer or something similarly weighty. And in these scenes, Liam Neeson is so good at being bad -- so hilarious at being utterly devoid of humor -- that he's an an absolute scream, and never once reveals even a hint of being in on his own joke.

See for yourself. Here's the scene, courtesy of YouTube:

Hilarious.

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Also, watch for Rosamund Hanson (seen at right), from the original British version of Shameless, as Cheryl, Warwick's spacy office assistant. Essentially, she's a variation on the utterly unhelpful management character played by Merchant on Extras.

But, like Life's Too Short itself, it's a variation that works.

 
 
 
 
 
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