Not even a Monty Python reunion of sorts can save Simon Pegg's sci-fi comedy from mediocrity

It’s often been said that Simon Pegg would agree to star in absolutely anything: now at least it’s official. Pegg is a gifted comic actor with more than his fair share of turkeys in the deep freeze, and seeing his name attached to an independent British comedy over the last few years has rarely been a good omen. The exception was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, which, in its thwarted small-town hero Gary King, gave Pegg his pithiest role to date; the nadir was last year’s Hector and the Search for Happiness, a self-help-inflected romantic comedy that made Eat, Pray, Love look like a newly unearthed Chabrol.

This rotely madcap science-fiction comedy has more in common with the latter film than the former, but it’s not bad so much as lightly feeble – and Pegg acquits himself respectably in a lead role that, for a change, chimes well to his best comic persona: the beta male under alpha pressure.

It’s also the first feature to be directed by Terry Jones since his live-action version of The Wind in the Willows in 1996, and something of a Monty Python reunion. Together with Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin voice a computer-animated alien council, who bestow Neil, Pegg’s weedy schoolteacher and aspiring novelist, with the short-term power to will “absolutely anything” into happening, with a muttered command to the cosmos and a flick of the wrist.

In theory, a premise like that could support literally any comic scenario Jones and his co-writer Gavin Scott could have dreamt up, but the lack of restrictions proves to be perversely limiting. Around half of Neil’s wishes end in chaos thanks to some kind of ambiguity in their original wording, and his repeated groans of “When I wished forthat, I didn’t mean…” don’t just get old, they draw attention to the various whistling punctures in the film’s internal logic. (If your first attempts to wish for world peace and an end to famine didn’t work, wouldn’t you just rephrase and try again?)

Beta male: Simon Pegg in 'Absolutely Anything' Credit: Giles Keyte

When it strays from the path, though, you may wish it hadn’t – and I am thinking here specifically of a sequence in which Pegg cedes the spotlight to a computer-animated turd, which skips around his house before swan-diving into the toilet. It’s rare to leave a film thinking even the turd deserved better material, and yet here we are.

But for the most part, Absolutely Anything isn’t abrasively awful, and even raises a couple of smiles. A romantic sub-plot involving Kate Beckinsale as Neil’s pretty neighbour Catherine isn’t the ethical blast-zone most wish-fulfilment comedies aimed at men would make it, and there’s mild, leg-humping amusement to be had from Neil’s dog Dennis, whose voice, once he finds it, is supplied by the late Robin Williams, in the last role the great comic actor recorded before his death. There’s also a running joke about a teacher who’s worshipped by an ever-growing cult that could almost be a discarded Flying Circus sketch, right down to its thuddingly anticlimactic punchline.

It’s never clear who Absolutely Anything is supposed to be for: the film feels like it belongs in a parallel universe in which the biggest comedy hit of the summer was Run For Your Wife. In that dimension, this would be the new Shaun of the Dead: in this one it’s merely not-horrible, and for some reason that feels like a relief.