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There are two ways you can take Patrick “Kitten” Braden, the Irish transvestite at the center of Breakfast on Pluto: (1) as a long-suffering but ever-hopeful boy/girl who just wants to find love, be it from the mother who abandoned him or one of the many men who like the cut of his cheekbones, or (2) as an irritating twit whose idea of femininity comprises ditzy cheer, breathy come-ons, and quick, smothering intimacy.
But even if you choose the latter, you’ll most likely feel a little bad for Kitten (Cillian Murphy) whenever Bobby Goldsboro’s mournful “Honey” plays in the background. Something of a theme song of Kitten’s, the string-laden 1968 hit gets three spins during Neil Jordan’s 135-minute latest. Naturally, Kitten doesn’t identify with the song’s gut-wrenched husband; rather, he sees himself as poor Honey—someone who dies tragically young, putting her lover through unimaginable pain and guilt. Almost immediately after meeting them, Kitten asks three separate suitors, “If you came home and found me on the floor, would you take me to the hospital?”
Beneath his otherworldly loveliness, you see, Kitten is a wounded soul. As the son of an Irish Catholic priest, Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), and his blond housekeeper, Eily (Eva Birthistle)—allegedly a dead ringer for actress Mitzi Gaynor—he couldn’t be anything but. Eily leaves little Patrick on Father Bernard’s doorstep, though he’s soon given to a curmudgeonly foster mother who reacts quite badly when she first finds him putting on dresses and makeup. (“‘I’m a boy, not a girl!’” she makes the 10-year-old (Conor McEvoy) repeat, adding “I curse the day I ever took yuh in!” for good measure.) Patrick’s trouble with authority only gets worse at school, where he’s always being dragged by the ear to the principal’s office, once for using a composition assignment to imagine his parents’ coupling.
Co-written by Jordan and Patrick McCabe, on whose novel the film is based, Pluto speeds through Kitten’s life, divided into 36 “chapters” that visit the character’s most influential experiences. The gist of this haphazardly told story is that Kitten wants to find his “Phantom Lady” Mom even more than he wants to be a girl—not that the latter really takes much effort. After leaving small-town Tyreelin for London, where Eily is supposed to live, Kitten seems to attract only men who know exactly what they’re getting into. In a wink at The Crying Game, Stephen Rea plays a magician who tells Kitten he could fall for “a girl like you.” When Kitten tells him he’s not a girl, the magician replies, “I know. I said a girl like you.”
Jordan uses plenty of music besides “Honey” to steer the viewer through the narrative’s various sharp turns. Overwhelmingly bouncy ’70s pop (the Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love,” Harry Nilsson’s “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” ) predominates, symbolically punctuated with slit-yer-wrist-ers (Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times”). The director also throws in digitized birds, cheeky subtitles, Bryan Ferry, a member of the Virgin Prunes, and the inevitable lamé-clad fantasy sequence. Relentlessly loopy, the film aims to prove that, aside from the love of a wee lost boy for his mam, sass and sparkle conquer all.
The songs, at least, keep Pluto skipping breezily through its running time. Whether they’re enough to keep you sympathetic toward Kitten is another issue. Murphy’s role is obviously quite a contrast to his other 2005 characters, Batman Begins’ the Scarecrow and the homicidal villain in Red Eye. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s remarkable: Murphy uses a ridiculously high-pitched voice that quickly gets grating, and his giggling, flirty take on womanly mannerisms goes beyond queenliness into caricature. Worse, as Pluto goes on—with IRA-related confrontations and bombings, one of which Kitten witnesses in slo-mo, one of which he’s suspected of—it becomes increasingly clear that its hero is flat-out delusional, living inside the fairy tale he concocted in school and overwhelmingly oblivious to the realities of the world. “Serious, serious, serious,” Kitten chides anyone whose feet remain on Earth.
Vagabonding his way across the British Isles and surviving on the kindness of strangers, Kitten eventually realizes who his friends are and becomes the happy member of an alternative family. With “Sugar Baby Love” returning to accompany a zooming-out shot of the new clan, Breakfast on Pluto’s finale is supposed to be joyful. If there were anything behind all that sass and sparkle, you might be convinced.
Transamerica turns Breakfast on Pluto on its empty little head. In writer-director Duncan Tucker’s feature debut, a pre-op transsexual named Bree discovers that back when she was an experimental college student named Stanley, he fathered a son. When Bree agrees, at the insistence of her therapist, to bail the kid out of a New York jail, she just wants to drop him off somewhere safe and get back to Los Angeles for her long-awaited transformation.
Bree, it should be pointed out, is played by a woman. Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman does the honors, with makeup realistic enough that it reportedly traumatized her daughter during a visit to the set. The film opens abruptly, with a shot of a young woman in an instructional video slowly bringing her voice down octave by octave. Then Tucker cuts to Bree getting dressed for the day, smiling in the mirror before she heads to her psychiatrist to get one of two signatures needed for her gender-reassignment surgery. But she lets slip that she’s received a call from someone claiming to be Stanley’s son, and Margaret (Elizabeth Peña) refuses to sign the papers until Bree deals with the situation.
When Bree flies to New York to get the attitudinal Toby (Kevin Zegers) out of the clink, Toby assumes she’s a church volunteer. Relieved that she doesn’t have to explain who she is, Bree says that she’s from the “Church of the Potential Father,” returns Toby to his decrepit apartment, and gets ready to light out for L.A. The squalor and Toby’s intention to hitch to California to become an actor soften Bree, though, so she gets a cheap car and the two head into the non-punny part of the film’s title.
Besides Bree’s still-unrevealed secret, Tucker’s version of the road trip is pretty typical: sunrises, sunsets, blindingly bright afternoons on desolate roads as the pair travel to Kentucky, where the boy grew up, and Colorado, where Bree grew up. They’re silent; they make conversation; they argue. Tucker accompanies their drive with salvation-seeking bluegrass, including a ditty that implores, “Lord, take away these chains from me.”
Tucker and Huffman—whose lowered but feminine voice and not-quite-right-carriage are terrific—make Bree not a flamboyant female impersonator but a rather proper lady. Even before she and Toby become close, Bree acts like a parent who won’t let her child get away with anything, from poor table manners to drug use, dishing out the discipline with lilting sarcasm. (When Toby wants cigarettes and asks what Bree means by her response of “Quel dommage,” she answers, “It means you’re not getting any cigarettes.”) Dad is also constantly trying to discourage Toby from searching for his father (“I’m a loner,” Toby says in a diner. “That’s wonderful! That’s the spirit!” Bree replies), but she does bring him to visit her own parents (Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan), who lavish attention on their grandchild without Toby’s ever knowing why.
That reunion also shows us why Bree tells people her parents are dead—one reason Huffman’s character is a lot easier to like than Murphy’s Kitten. Bree is a person trapped in a world much glitzier than she is, someone whose limiting circumstances include working two menial jobs and having a penis that disgusts her. The film she’s in is a lot easier to like, too, especially for its non-fairy-tale-ish take on achieving contentment: When a doctor, before he gives consent for Bree’s surgery, asks her if she’s happy, she responds, “Yes. I mean no. I mean I will be.”CP