Review: John Landis’ Gravedigger Comedy ‘Burke and Hare’ Arrives D.O.A.

Even winning performances from Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis can't breathe life into this moribund farce

Edinburgh’s most notorious serial killers, William Burke and William Hare were a pair of Irish immigrants who terrorized the Scottish capitol in the 1820’s. Together they murdered 17 and sold the corpses to medical lecturer Dr. Robert Knox for his research.

And if you think this duo is a lousy basis for a good comedy, the laugh-free “Burke and Hare” from director John Landis will prove you right.

The two Williams, Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis), stumble upon a way to make a fast buck during hard times: When a guest dies in his sleep at an inn run by Hare’s wife (an acidic and lusty Jessica Hynes), they sell the corpse to Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson), a lecturer at the renowned Edinburgh Medical College. The good doctor requires two bodies a week, and Burke and Hare soon find themselves flush with cash.

Burke is smitten by “actress” Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher), promising he’ll back her all-female production of “Macbeth” while trying desperately to get to first base with her. Meanwhile, nosy Captain Tam McLintoch (Ronnie Corbett) sees a career-making chance in solving the murders, and Burke and Hare’s sloppy methods make his job all too easy.

Landis elicits fine performances from a superb cast starting with his two leads: Simon Pegg, often a convincing and amiable everyman, and Andy Serkis, an extraordinary character actor barely recognizable here without his ape fur.

Pegg’s Burke is lovelorn and conscious-stricken by their murderous escapades while Serkis’ Hare leads a life of lust and excess, worrying little about mortal sin. The pair enjoy fine chemistry but struggle with lame jokes and wafer-thin material courtesy of writers Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft.

Sweet, sexy and charming, Fisher plays the working girl working her way into Burke’s arms. She stole scenes from comic heavyweights as the psycho girlfriend in “Wedding Crashers,” and ably anchored the unfortunate “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” demonstrating she’s more than just a pretty face. Here, Fisher slyly infuses her character with an inner life that isn’t necessarily on the page.

Wilkinson expertly fills an undemanding role as the cold, professorial Dr. Knox, while Tim Curry, as his rival, complements him with an arch and cartoonish performance. Other cameos include Christopher Lee and British comedy icons Paul Whitehouse, Steven Merchant and Michael Winner.

“Burke and Hare” is a sumptuous production boasting big-name actors by the legendary director of comedy classics like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.” So why is it so damn awful? Jokes include the pair optimistically looking up and admiring the sky when struck in the face by a bucket of waste from above.

In another scene a bouncer tosses a guy out of a bar, shouting, “Watch your f—ing language, you goddamn son of a bitch!” Hi-larious! Right?

Although he’s only 61, Landis demonstrates a comedic sensibility so creaky it harkens back to his first big break in 1977, “Kentucky Fried Movie,” an outrageous film in its time — but have you seen it lately? Watching “Burke and Hare” is like listening to your grandfather tell the same joke for the 14th time. You smile thinly, thinking, “We love you, old man. But for god’s sake, give it a rest!”