Which Booker Prize-winner could give Hollywood the boot in the arse it needs and secretly craves? Roddy Doyle, that’s who. His Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) is somewhat more consistent than the Godfather Trilogy and less dependent on film tradition. His flicks don’t exactly blow Coppola’s away, but they’re at least as good at sparking a family to rampageous life. It’s not images that render Doyle’s Dublin Rabbitte clan–it’s the talk. Doyle’s characters are comets of conversation, a bit like Preston Sturges heroes, daredevilishly suspended in thin plots by sheer velocity and nerve.
Doyle was a Dublin schoolteacher who poured his students’ joie de vivre into a novel, The Commitments (1991), about scrappy Irish dole kids who become a soul band. When publishers returned it unopened, Doyle published it himself; then Alan Parker’s posse buffed it into one of the best music movies ever, realer-seeming than the current exquisite memory film Almost Famous. It succeeds because it celebrates failure with integrity. As they say about soul music in the film, “It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”
The Commitments is the best Doyle film because it has Hollywood polish and story shape, but what makes it great is Doyle’s untutored talent for dialogue in a medium dominated by words overprocessed and extruded by studios in terror of an original syllable. The Snapper (1993), made for BBC peanuts by Stephen Frears, a London genius who flops whenever he tries to go Hollywood, is a haphazard tale of unwed Dublin motherhood. Lost from the novel it’s based on is the inside tour of the mother’s thoughts, but still, it’s a pure jolt of Doyle dialogue, uncut by movie pros.
What a rush! Who cares if the story has no sense of direction when you’ve got an intense sense of place and a vital ensemble engaged in the verbal equivalent of a food fight? Even the girl’s loathsome impregnator Georgie Burgess (sag-eyed Pat Laffan) is so real, so rooted, you could kiss his puff-pastry face. Doyle captures the fractious loyalty and contained chaos that inspired the comic Martin Mull to say that having a family is “like having a bowling alley installed in your brain.” While the eloquently exasperated expectant grandpa (Colm Meaney) tries to pry Burgess’s identity out of his “up the pole” daughter, his younger girl high-steps past wearing baton-twirler’s duds and a shaving-foam beard; a soused son vomits in the kitchen sink; grandpa-to-be says, “You’ll do those dishes!” and gets back to interrogating without missing a beat.
The film The Van (1996), about the Dublin dad’s fish-and-chip truck venture, was a bigger comedown from Doyle’s Booker-shortlisted book–not enough family feeling. Even so, his cult flicks got him a crack at writing a screenplay not derived from a novel; unhappily, it is derived from all too many movies. The trouble starts with the title: When Brendan Met Trudy. If you’re going to quote a famous movie title, why pick one whose title is the worst thing about it?
While there’s nothing wrong with stealing, Doyle and director Kieron Walsh are thieving magpies who can’t weave bits into a nest for new life. The worst thing about When Brendan Met Trudy is its incessant, inconsequential movie references, no substitute for sturdy characters and witty chaff. In their opening-scene reprise of Sunset Boulevard, virginal 28-year-old schoolteacher Brendan (Peter McDonald) lies face-down on a rain-swept Dublin street as his voiceover suggests that we back up a few weeks to find out how he got there.
The original fulfills that promise with a clockwork plot. This scene is just a one-shot gag: We later find that Brendan tripped in the street, fell and took comfort in mumbling lines from an old movie. He’s not dead, just dull, there for no reason besides the filmmaker’s wish to quote Sunset Boulevard. Random events happen to Brendan. He sings Panis Angelicus with his church choir (a no-soul band). He absently teaches students whose names he can’t keep straight (how can Doyle get nothing from this milieu?). He gets picked up in a pub by Trudy (Flora Montgomery), a determinedly spunky Ellen DeGeneres lookalike; takes her to “an important Polish movie” by “Tomaszewski”; has cute sex with her; suspects her of being the castrator who’s (cutely) terrorizing Dublin; and helps her bungle a cutesy burglary of his school. The whimsy is wheezy.
We see clips from Once Upon a Time in the West, The Producers and The African Queen, and Brendan and Trudy re-enact scenes from movies. Brendan gets limp in flagrante in a hayloft. Trudy observes, “What’s wrong? You were big a minute ago.” He replies, “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small.” Putting Jean Seberg’s New York Herald Tribune T-shirt on Trudy fails to make her Seberg in Breathless. When Belmondo apes Bogey in Breathless, he’s his own man. Aping Belmondo, Brendan isn’t anybody, just a dead cliché walking. He’s very good at mimicking John Wayne’s walk at the end of The Searchers–but he ain’t goin’ nowhere, pilgrim. This movie could be called Airless. Or Something Mild.
Doyle’s talent glimmers here and there in the hokey-jokey dialogue; you may find bits charming and me grumpy. Maybe I wouldn’t be so disappointed if it didn’t come off like a tone-deaf imitation of a real Roddy Doyle movie–one with bighearted characters firmly planted in a real place, whipping up a world out of irreverently poetical words, making me feel like family, banishing the real world by sweeping me up in theirs. Doyle’s excruciatingly self-conscious and lumbering farce is not quite shite, it’s just the usual, when what we expect from him is a kick in the arse.
Looking Back: First-time director/writer Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me won Best Screenplay and Best Actress from the National Society of Film Critics instead of the Oscars it also deserved, but how can you expect a bunch of Hollywood types to grasp fully an articulately understated, utterly honest work of art? In Lonergan’s tale of an orphaned brother and sister’s troubled love, every stammer, rant, skittish glance and awkward silence is precisely in character and scored like music.
Anyone could film an opening scene of a car crash that claims a young couple, but look how sensitively Lonergan handles the next: A cop’s face materializes in the obscured glass of a front door. Sheriff Darryl (Adam LeFevre) tells the babysitter of the dead couple’s kids, “Would you step outside and close the door?” Darryl’s cop-speak must work on drunk drivers, but words fail him now and he’s struck dumb with grief. The mute moment is searing, it evokes the closeness of their upstate New York town and it introduces two symbols of disconnection Lonergan loves: the door and the glass.
We flash forward to the orphaned girl Sammy (hummingbird-alert Laura Linney) in middle age, still living in her parents’ manse with a wraparound porch like a comforting arm, baking plate-sized cookies for the return of her slouching jailbird hobo brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo, a real find). On the bus home, Terry smokes joints as if they were his sole source of oxygen–the same way wild-child-turned-churchgoer Sammy smokes cigarettes when her 9-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin, very like his brother Macaulay), is safely tucked in bed.
The town still cramps Terry. Sheriff Darryl is still in his face, confiningly benign. Terry literally can’t breathe around the guy, because he’ll exhale THC. And when Terry and Sammy meet, Lonergan economically conveys how they’ve coped with orphanhood in opposite ways. Terry became a Five Easy Pieces-style wandering wastrel. Single-mom Sammy stayed put, raising Rudy and working at a bank run by Brian (artfully blank-eyed Matthew Broderick). Brian is a preposterous martinet, ineptly tyrannical (he asks people to use “a more quote unquote normal range of colors” on their PCs), yet with a nonmean streak. So Sammy feels sorry for him and impulsively takes him to bed. She’s always trying to save people.
The story’s surface simplicity is deceptive. The relationships between Terry, Rudy, Sammy and her lovers grow together slowly, like frost tendrils in a windowpane. Subtext runs deep, and though he’s not the world’s most bravura visual director, Lonergan composes a tight symbolic structure connecting apparently desultory events. The climactic punchout scene is not contrived; it closes the circle of the lost-parent theme, and squares with Terry’s belief in facing bad facts, not fleeing to faith and tradition. Watching him, you’d never know the 1960s myth of self-actualization was all self-deluded jive. (It sure beats the smug, pothead-bashing moralizing of the otherwise superb Wonder Boys.) Listening to him and Sammy and Rudy and a doleful minister (played well by Lonergan) talk about life, you’d think cinema was an art open to ideas. Plus, it’s funny.