“Your disability is that you’re an asshole!” a caretaker tells the wheelchair-bound title character of Rory O’Shea Was Here. If it’s well-deserved, it’s also something of a shock: In Irish director Damien O’Donnell’s paint-by-numbers weepy, the attitudinal punk with a mouth that compensates for all his nonworking parts is supposed to shake up an institution and be frowned upon by authority but end up beloved by all. And, of course, he should also teach us a lesson. But no one’s supposed to call him an asshole!
Rory (James McAvoy) is a pierced, spiky-haired 20-year-old with a rapidly degenerative form of muscular dystrophy. The disease has left him with the use of only two fingers, as he announces to the titillated residents of his new adult-care home in a spirited speech that culminates with “You can shake my hand or kiss my ass, but don’t ask me to reciprocate!” Determined to make the most out of his time there, Rory befriends Michael (Steven Robertson), a young man with cerebral palsy and a severe speech impediment. Though Michael has to laboriously spell out words to the people who run the facility, Rory understands him—and quickly talks him into behaving badly. Naturally, supervisor Eileen (Brenda Fricker) glowers as hard as she can—especially when the two conspire to live independently, despite the fact that Michael has been in homes his entire life.
Like the recent Assisted Living, Rory O’Shea is an uncomfortable mix of comedy and melodrama, with East Is East vet O’Donnell trying to wring as many laffs as he can out of Jeffrey Caine’s script before things turn serious. And although Rory’s juvenile one-liners are pretty funny (translation of one of Michael’s unintelligible remarks: “I think he said, ‘You’re a prick’”), Michael is too often primed for more condescending chuckles: Aww, he tried to spike his hair, too! Ho ho, look at how he keeps dropping his toothbrush!
At least until Rory O’Shea morphs into a series of Very Special Episodes as the guys face life on their own, with story lines that include confronting Michael’s estranged father, trying to check out an apartment with no wheelchair access, and Michael’s falling hard for Siobhan (Romola Garai), the pretty personal assistant the pair improbably hires. The appearance of Siobhan—a former store clerk who easily decides to devote her life to these two and picks up the highly specialized skills required to care for them overnight—is only one of several hard-to-believe moments, though certainly not the most confounding. That would be when Rory goes joy-riding with a bunch of local kids—in the driver’s seat.
Such glitches aside, both actors pull off exceptional performances. Robertson is flawless in his depiction of Michael, never making one move or expression that would make you question his character’s illness—though some of his lines are conveniently clearer than others, likely to prevent the tedium of having Rory repeat everything he says. McAvoy, meanwhile, is exactly the charming rogue he’s meant to be, even eking out some sympathy for a character who isn’t much more than hell on wheels. And, yes, in the end Rory even teaches us a lesson—just not quite as gracefully as the filmmakers might wish.
Keanu Reeves’ character in Constantine is another unlikely badass, confined not to a wheelchair but to…service to the Lord. Like a divine Dirty Harry, John Constantine—or J.C., if you will—growls Latin prayers between drags on his cigarette and punches demons back to Hell when the in nomine patri route just won’t do. And when Constantine needs to strong-arm one of Satan’s helpers for a little 411? Dude, a sweet last-rites fake-out and some brass knuckles are all he needs to get the job done.
Not since the Crusades has Christianity seemed so gangsta. But don’t worry—Constantine remains more comic book than Good Book. Based on the DC/Vertigo comic Hellblazer, the movie contains enough whiz-bangedness to prevent any Sunday-school messages from getting across too obviously. Unfortunately, thanks to co-writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello—and, to a lesser extent, first-time director Francis Lawrence—not much else gets across, either. In terms of recent horror turkeys, Constantine is more Hide and Seek than Alone in the Dark: With slick production, subtle creepiness, and even Devil’s Advocate– quality acting from Mr. Whoa, it just may take you until the closing credits to realize how stupid the film really is.
It helps, too, if you aren’t familiar with Constantine’s source material, in which our antihero is blond, British, and said to have been modeled on Sting—in other words, pretty much the opposite of Keanu Reeves. Once Reeves was cast, the filmmakers—perhaps fearing the accent he unleashed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—decided to make Constantine American, and they also tweaked his backstory: J.C.’s lot as a demon slayer is a consequence of a teenage suicide attempt that, as all good Catholics will know, left a mortal mark on his soul and, in his case, a short time to enjoy his restored life. His childhood misery stemmed from a curse that allowed young John to see “half-breeds,” or the part-human/part-spirits who’ve been sent from Heaven or Hell to sway mankind to play for their respective teams. Now Constantine can still see them skulking around Los Angeles, and because he’s being eaten away by lung cancer, he’s trying to score points with the man upstairs by returning the evil ones whence they came.
The suspicious suicide of a devoutly Catholic mental patient, Isabel, leads her twin sister, police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), to seek guidance from Constantine, whose name was whispered by Isabel before her death. It’s around this point when you’ll stop following along: Turns out Angela and her sister (also played by Weisz) used to see half-breeds, too. After Constantine does a quick check of Hell—a trip facilitated by, I swear, a bucket of water and a cat—he determines whether Isabel actually did commit suicide, and then…something. It involves random demon attacks, an evil half-breed named Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale), and a freaked-out priest who suddenly can’t get booze out of any bottle in the liquor store. Oh yeah, and the Spear of Destiny, whose owner is supposed to have “the fate of the world in his hands” and which was found at the beginning of the film by some Mexican—who is sporadically shown walking, presumably, to Los Angeles.
Lawrence, who’s, yes, a former music-video director, resists going for cheap scares, instead making your spine chill with, say, a quiet closeup of Isabel’s dead eyes or the good ol’ someone’s-on-the-ceiling introduction to possession. The CGI demons are appropriately menacing (except for one who suddenly shows a cheesy face), as is the underworld milieu in which Constantine travels (including a requisitely goth half-breed-friendly bar). And as laughable as the sight of Reeves holding a kitty with his feet in a bucket is, the fantastical sequence that follows is anything but: You may wonder why Hell is so damn windy, but Lawrence and Big Fish cinematographer Philippe Rousselot’s fiend-filled, darkly orange wasteland is easily Constantine’s most compelling visual.
Of course, those are just random moments of success. Almost everywhere else, Lawrence allows himself to be eclipsed by Brodbin and Cappello, who fail spectacularly to tell a clear story—though they at least sprinkle in some dry humor. Constantine, for example, gets annoyed at anything that reminds him of his death sentence, from a billboard proclaiming “Your time is running out!” to an elevator-mate’s query of “Going down?” And there is a last-act reprieve from the increasingly leaden denouement in the form of Peter Stormare’s wickedly Vegas-esque Satan. But it’s still impossible to see Constantine as anything other than a fall from grace: First you laugh with it. Then you laugh at it.CP