A good book is the basis for "A Good Man in Africa," but its mordant humor has curdled badly on the screen. Although William Boyd, the author of these gimlet-eyed observations of colonial antics in Africa, adapted his own novel and also served as one of the film's producers, "A Good Man in Africa" now has none of the cunning that it had on the page.
The film has been directed in woefully unfunny fashion by Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy," "Black Robe," "Tender Mercies"), whose talents ordinarily take a more quietly dramatic turn. Here, lumbering through the machinations of a frenzied farce, he displays a comic touch that is unfailingly mirthless, and a penchant for offending his audience in needless, obvious ways. Oliver Stone looks like Ernst Lubitsch compared to this.
The real problem on screen is one of the book's best aspects: the caustic voice of its narrator, a hapless middle-level British diplomat named Morgan Leafy. As written, Leafy is furtive and hilariously withering enough to echo Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim," but his astuteness has been lost in translation. All that remain are the insults. And without a larger comic context, they become downright insulting. It doesn't help that this story has a zany, convoluted plot, and that the plot seems pointless without Leafy's overview holding it together.
As played by Colin Friels, Leafy becomes a smirky, unctuous figure who regards Africa as a benighted place. So while the story's British diplomats are played as stuffed shirts, and the diplomats' female relatives as sex-starved vixens, the African characters turn into buffoons. Leafy's humorous habit of insulting his black employees and black mistress is only one of the film's many obnoxious elements. It also seems to be making fun of African religion. One subplot, about the rites surrounding a female servant who has been struck by lightning, is quite literally funny as a corpse.
Sean Connery, as the good man of the title, makes a dashing doctor in a Panama hat, but he has a terrible role. Among its highlights: examining Leafy for venereal disease, in a sequence that had some humor on the page but becomes understandably unpleasant when Mr. Beresford lingers over it on screen. Leafy's tireless womanizing, the occasion for much wide-eyed mugging from Mr. Friels, yields disease-related jokes that are all too harmonious with the rest of the film.
The only enjoyment here comes from watching isolated performances, particularly John Lithgow's supremely stuffy turn as Fanshawe, the boob who is Leafy's boss, and whose wife (Diana Rigg) and daughter (Sarah-Jane Fenton) wind up dallying with Leafy in various ways. Ms. Rigg also ought to be a welcome presence, but her role is downright humiliating, since it sends her swooning over the unappetizing Leafy. Louis Gossett Jr. has some tart, funny moments as a corrupt politician well versed in manipulating British diplomats, though Joanne Whalley-Kilmer overworks the role of his eager wife. Maynard Eziashi, a fine African actor who was the star of Mr. Beresford's "Mr. Johnson," is overlooked in the role of Leafy's servant.
Perhaps the film's most fabulously unfunny scene is one in which Mr. Friels and Ms. Rigg, in the midst of a dangerous escapade, stagger into an African bar in their tattered evening clothes. Amid an all-black clientele, these two white characters happen to find Mr. Eziashi spending a quiet moment. Without question or complaint, he abandons what he is doing and is ready to chauffeur them somewhere, while the film offers no insight into his thoughts. Anyone looking to find fault with "A Good Man in Africa" need look no further than this.