Dexter: Well, yes, as a matter of fact there is...
Ron Anderson: Then for fuck's sake talk to someone about it, will you? And sort it out before I sack you and hire a lobotomized monkey to play your role. Okay?
Dexter King (Goldblum) is a lovelorn American actor working in London. For the last six years he has played "The Tall Guy", a straight man to annoying, egotistical, and outright abusive stage comedian Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson). After commiserating with his nymphomaniac housemate (Geraldine James) and going to a doctor for his chronic allergies, he meets and falls in love with beautiful nurse Kate Lemon (Emma Thompson in her film debut), and is so elated that he improvises onstage to the point that Anderson fires him for it. He fails a few auditions before finally landing the title role in an elaborate West End musical adaptation of The Elephant Man. But his big break could end up costing him his relationship if he's not careful...
Tropes present in the film:
- Actor Allusion: Elephant!, with its grotesque, tragic protagonist, is a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, but a subtle layer of this trope also exists given who's playing Dexter. Jeff Goldblum spent most of the first 15 years of his career as a supporting player at best before finding a breakout lead role as the tragically Doomed Protagonist of The Fly (1986), which required him to wear extremely heavy, grotesque makeup for much of the shoot. Dexter winds up getting his big break playing the Elephant Man, and he ends up spending a significant chunk of the third act running about London in full disfiguring makeup.
- Adam Westing: Rowan Atkinson plays Ron Anderson, a hyper-obnoxious version of himself. (The screenplay is partially inspired by Curtis's experiences working with Atkinson.) Even their initials are identical.
- Afraid of Needles: Dexter has put off getting treated for his allergies because of this trope. Once he bites the bullet and goes to the doctor, he's relieved to learn that there's now an oral medication alternative...but just as he's leaving the hospital with his prescription he encounters Kate and, upon learning she performs injections, decides he can endure some of those after all. Indeed he does, but it is not pleasant, especially the time when she's called away and a slightly deranged (though cheerful) doctor takes over.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Carmen suggests Dexter should be an utter bastard to women in order to become better at seducing them. This says more about her than women in general, and thankfully Dexter never tries this out.
- Bad Boss: Ron turns this up to eleven.
- Bifauxnen: Kate.
- Brutal Honesty: Kate breaks up with Dexter using this.
- Catapult Nightmare: Dexter's response to his Nightmare Sequence (see below).
- Cluster F-Bomb: Dexter's failed audition for a Steven Berkoff play.Actor #1: [bristling with rage] Fack awf! [kicks chair over]Actor #2: [very aggressive, pointing at Actor #1] Fack awf yerself! [points at Dexter] And the same goes for yer friennnd! [kicks table over] FACK AWF!Dexter: [looks baffled; half-heartedly points at Actor #2] You fuck off. [looks helplessly at Steven Berkoff]
[cut to Dexter's agent's office]Dexter's Agent: He said he thought you lacked anger.Dexter: I dunno, I was pretty pissed off by the end.
- Comically Missing the Point: Dexter does this deliberately.Kate: Sorry about last night, I was very tired. I'm less tired now, though.Dexter: I'm not tired either.Kate: Great! Two people...on their own...in the middle of the afternoon...and not tired.
[Pause]Dexter: Ideal circumstances...for Scrabble.
[Cut to Dexter and Kate having extremely vigorous sex.]
- Deadpan Snarker: Kate Lemon. She is British after all.
- Destructo-Nookie: Kate's bedroom will never be the same.
- Dissonant Serenity: Being played by Jeff Goldblum means that Dexter tends to give this off all the time, even when he's angry.
- Endearingly Dorky: Well, it is Jeff Goldblum after all, especially when he's wearing Superman pyjamas. Emma Thompson isn't normally this trope; but she takes a good stab at it in this film.
- Fanservice: Emma Thompson has never been as naked ever again as she is in Kate and Dexter's sex scene.
- Fan Disservice: In-universe for Dexter as well as for the audience; with all the hairy middle-aged men walking around naked in Carmen's house.
- The aforementioned Destructo Nookie sex scene, in which a slice of buttered toast is at one point sticking to Kate's buttock.
- Flashback: In the early going a discussion between Carmen and Dexter leads into a short montage of his previous failed romantic relationships (complete with his having different hairstyles and even facial hair in several of them). After his initial failure to court Kate during his appointments, he gives one of the ex-girlfriends seen in this sequence another chance...briefly.
- Genre Savvy: Kate gives the strong impression that she knows she's supposed to be the love interest in a romantic comedy. It verges on Amateur Sleuth, especially when she and Dexter get together long before the end of the film. She subsequently figures out that he's cheating on her with Cheryl primarily from the way that, at the Elephant! post-show party, he fills Cheryl's champagne glass without asking her if she wants any, and she doesn't bother to thank him. (He previously suspiciously paused while discussing whom he was working with in the show when he got to Cheryl's name.)
- The Grovel: The climax hinges on Dexter delivering this to Kate, who has dumped him over his affair with Cheryl. Exaggerated in that he is so sincere and desperate that he does this while she's at the hospital trying to attend to a bunch of lorry accident victims and said victims become more concerned with his situation than their own.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Amusingly averted with Ron Anderson, when Dexter's unhappiness causes him to fluff moments on stage:Ron Anderson: Listen, Dexter, is there something troubling you? Something that you would like to talk to someone about?Dexter: Well, yes, as a matter of fact there is.Ron Anderson: Then for fuck's sake talk to someone about it, will you? And sort it out before I sack you and hire a lobotomized monkey to play your role. Okay?
- Kick the Dog: Ron does this as easily as breathing. The quote just above is a fine example of this.
- Lovable Sex Maniac: Carmen, Dexter's flatmate. At one point she has four guys in her bed at the same time, but she's always willing to interrupt coitus to listen to Dexter's problems, even if her partners are a little less patient.
- Meet Cute: Dexter meets Kate in the hospital where she treats him for his hay fever, and then invents a fictitious trip to Morocco so that he can have an excuse to keep going back to get vaccinations from her. This being a Richard Curtis script, it's more like a Meet Comically Inappropriate.Dexter: All these weeks I've been coming here, I've been wanting to ask you something. What I really want to know is, uh, what's your name?Kate: Kate Lemon. Horrid name.Dexter: No, no, not at all. Could have been worse. Could have been called Hitler, or Tampon, or something.
- What sells this moment is Kate's response: just by swivelling her eyes away from him for a second or so, she manages to convey "What the fuck?"
- My Girl Is a Slut: Kate's apparent easiness is part of her charm: she believes in having sex on a first date, because it's better than "our having ten expensive dinners if I already know I like you."
- Later:Dexter: Please? Just dinner and let me explain? I was a complete, total, utter idiot. I've learned my lesson. Totally. Utterly.Kate: Just dinner.Dexter: I promise.Kate: What...no sex at the end? [looks disappointed]
- Nightmare Sequence: Struggling to break the ice with Kate during his injection appointments results in Dexter having a nightmare in which he's being operated on by doctors who discover he literally doesn't have a spine. Worse, he's conscious while they're operating! He wakes up in the classic manner from this.
- Pushed in Front of the Audience: In the climax, Dexter, desperate to confront Ron over the latter's date with Kate, convinces his old colleague Charlie — a stagehand — to go on in his place in Elephant! It helps that the role of the Elephant Man doesn't demand much more from an actor than wearing hideous makeup and drooling a lot, as Dexter points out. It's implied in the closing montage that the audience never realizes anything is amiss.
- Really Gets Around: Dexter's flatmate, Carmen. A Running Gag has her in bed with or on a date with with a different man in each scene, or sometimes several at the same time.
- Romantic Comedy: Though one substantially wackier than Curtis's later forays into this genre starting with Four Weddings and a Funeral...
- Self-Deprecating Humor: Rowan Atkinson plays an exaggerated and obnoxious version of his stand-up stage persona — who is constantly name-dropping the royal family.Ron Anderson: Sorry I'm so late. Had some rather special guests at my show tonight. Difficult to tell the heir to the throne to bugger off because you've got a party to go to.
- Show Within a Show: Type 1 owing to the film being set in the world of West End theatre, with the plot revolving around two specific examples of such. Dexter starts out as the straight man of Ron's Rubber Face Revue and goes on to land the lead role in a musical adaptation of The Elephant Man of all things, being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Roger Ebert referred to it as "the funniest deliberately bad play in a movie since Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler" in The Producers."
- Significant Monogram: Ron Anderson has the same initials as his actor, Rowan Atkinson, in keeping with the Adam Westing at play.
- Stealth Insult: Ron gets a particularly nasty one in on Dexter during the opening night party of Elephant!Ron: The word on the street is that your makeup is just excellent.
- Stylistic Suck: Both of the in-universe shows are examples of this.
- Ron is one of England's biggest comedy stars; Dexter says he signed on for a six-week engagement as his stooge but Rubber Face Revue was such a hit that it's run for six years at the point the story begins. Rubber Face Revue, from what the film's audience sees, is pure hack comedy — mugging, slapstick, an ostensibly outrageous musical number about dancing nuns with both men in full drag, etc. Dexter's accidental and/or improvised contributions are, if anything, improvements, and Ron realizes this and is incensed by them. At the same time, it's easy to see how his Lowest Common Denominator approach has proven so popular, verging on So Unfunny, It's Funny.
- Elephant! is full of Painful Rhymes (comet/vomit, worst/universe, etc.), ridiculous elephant puns and references in even the ballads ("He's Packing His Trunk"), unnecessary special effects (the show opens with copious dry ice fog, Joseph Merrick is seated in a chair that floats over the leading lady as she belts out the aforementioned "He's Packing His Trunk", and the finale has Merrick's deathbed ascending into the sky), and not a bit of self-awareness much less humor — not even in the production number featuring tap dancing performers in Goofy Suit elephant heads and a mirror ball. Again, it's such a perfect distillation of the excesses of 1980s West End musicals that it's still believable that audiences would love it unironically (though Kate clearly doesn't get it and to Dexter it's just a good break for him).
- Take That!: The Show Within a Show is a brilliant send-up of 1980s "megamusicals", i.e. Les MisÚrables (in-universe Elephant! is being produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which produced the original English-language production of that show) and especially The Phantom of the Opera. Another is poked fun at in this exchange between Dexter and his agent:Dexter: A musical of The Elephant Man? What's it called?
Mary: Elephant, I think - with an exclamation mark, presumably.
Dexter: Pity the poor bastard who has to play the elephant.
Mary: Remember dearest, everyone thought Jesus Christ Superstar was a stupid idea.
Dexter: Jesus Christ Superstar was a stupid idea.Mary: True.
- The Musical: Parodied with Elephant! See Take That! above.
- Title Drop: Dexter's role in Ron Anderson's show is listed simply as "The Tall Guy". Being that it's the 6' 4.5" (1.94 m) Goldblum, it's certainly a physically descriptive title.
- Your Television Hates You: Poor Dexter puts up with this trope in two scenes — first in the early going when two different channels are each broadcasting stuff featuring Ron (an interview in one case, a commercial in the other), and later after Kate breaks up with him. The chat show host previously introducing the interview with Ron is discussing infidelity tonight. Dexter then tries the radio, but every single station is playing a different breakup-related song at the time.