Filmed in 1996, Stiff Upper Lips satirizes 'prestige' movies that are typically adapted from British literary classics, feature British casts, and are produced by the team of Merchant and Ivory. But these films are themselves often funny enough, however unintentionally. Stiff Upper Lips merely proves that feeble, witless jokes will flop no matter how grand the setting.

The film opens at Cambridge in 1908, as student Edward Ivory (Samuel West) persuades classmate Cedric Trilling (Robert Portal) to meet his nubile sister Emily (Georgina Cates). Her spinster aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales) is desperate to marry her off, and can't understand why Cedric seems more interested in Edward. Emily is rescued in a swimming accident by George (Sean Pertwee), a local laborer. Although his father reminds him repeatedly that they are 'scum of the earth,' George is drawn to Emily, and agrees to be her servant as she and her family tour Italy.

While Cedric and Edward play chess and discuss their 'strange' feelings for each other, Emily becomes pregnant after a late-night assignation with George. The others find out after they journey to India to visit Cedric's uncle Horace (Peter Ustinov) on his tea plantation. Horace and Agnes start an affair; Emily turns down George's marriage proposal and runs away briefly to a missionary hospital; Cedric and Edward conspire to frame George for arson. He's sentenced to jail, but escapes in time to prevent Emily's marriage to Cedric back in England.

The acting is mostly perfunctory. West, who adroitly manages to appear stupid and endearing at the same time, displays a grace and humor missing from the rest of the cast. Cates and Scales are both shrill and charmless, while Pertwee simply isn't the right physical type to play a coarse, lower-class laborer. Ustinov doesn't appear until an hour into the film, and indulges in some shockingly racist jokes.

The film's main flaw is its atrocious script, co-written by Paul Simpkin and director Gary Sinyor (Leon the Pig Farmer). The filmmakers seem to think that simply referring to films like A Passage to India or A Room with a View is all it takes to be funny. But the gags here feel pointless, fall excruciatingly flat, or peter out without a punchline. Given the subject matter, the dialogue is inappropriately crude and vulgar. Jokes revolving around the butler's habit of urinating on the family's food show how crass the film can be.

Director Sinyor lacks a discernible style or technique. Scenes are haphazardly structured, and the actors are left hanging in situations that lead nowhere. Prospects for his next film, a remake of Buster Keaton's Seven Chances, look miserable. Maybe there are viewers who think that spinsters, butlers, Cambridge and the British Raj need to be satirized; if so, this will be their cup of tea. More likely, audiences will follow the example of viewers at a recent screening, who were streaming toward the exits minutes into the movie.

--Daniel Eagan