The least that can be said for When Brendan Met Trudy is that it’s vastly more entertaining than the bewilderingly successful When Harry Met Sally…, in which terminally perky, button-cute Meg Ryan and dour, prune-faced Billy Crystal squabble for 96 minutes before realizing that they are meant for each other. In his first feature, Irish director Kieron J. Walsh, working from an original screenplay by prize-winning novelist Roddy Doyle, revivifies romantic comedy while paying homage to the filmmakers he admires.
Doyle, who previously adapted three of his novelsThe Commitments, The Snapper, and The Vanfor the screen, effectively updates a plot that director Howard Hawks employed in Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire: the mutually liberating love affair between a loner academic and an uninhibited vamp. Brendan (trim, clean-cut Peter McDonald) is a shy, bored Dublin teacher with two after-school obsessionssinging and cinema. He’s fully alive only when raising his clarion baritone in choral performances of religious compositions or viewing, reading about, and analyzing classic films.
When Brendan Met Trudy opens with one of several movie pastiches. Like William Holden afloat in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard, Brendan is first seen face-down in a rain-clogged Dublin gutter. In voice-over, he returns us to “the day it all started.” “It” is Trudy (saucy, effervescent Flora Montgomery), who flirts with him in a pub one evening after choir rehearsal. She claims, unconvincingly, to be a Montessori teacher and a fellow cinema buff, but her longshoreman vocabulary makes her an unlikely schoolmarm. When Brendan invites her to see a film, she agrees on the conditions that the movie must be in color and not star Emma Thompson. Brendan’s choice of screen fare runs to highbrow, subtitled art pictures such as Kooti Goes to Warsaw, but Trudy prefers Remedial Action, a Hollywood no-brainer filled with slo-mo violence.
United by sexual attraction but separated by taste, the pair embark on a rib-rattling erotic relationship. Brendan’s concupiscent bliss is clouded only by Trudy’s disconcerting habit of disappearing in the middle of the night and returning exhausted at daybreak. Fearing that she might be the notorious, headline-grabbing feminist slasher who roams dark Dublin castrating men, Brendan forces Trudy to come clean about her nocturnal activities. She admits that she’s neither a teacher nor an emasculator, but confesses that she’s a burglar. After Brendan accompanies Trudy on her criminal outings, his previously uneventful life becomes wildly adventurous, inspiring him to turn his back on his insufferable, conformist sister, Nuala (Pauline McLynn), and rally to the defense of Trudy’s friend Edgar (Maynard Eziashi), a Nigerian refugee facing deportation by Irish immigration authorities.
McDonald and Montgomery light up the screen, palpably demonstrating the powerful magnetism of opposite temperaments. They’re abetted by an eccentric supporting cast, notably McLynn as Brendan’s ferret-faced, judgmental sibling-from-hell, a tackily dressed potato-crisp addict whose car sports the bumper sticker “Middle Class and Proud of It.” Doyle’s up-to-the-minute screenplay is refreshingly free of the sentimental blarney that usually makes Irish comedies so off-putting, and his writing sparkles with character-illuminating dialogue and detail. (In a telling exchange of Christmas gifts early in their courtship, Trudy gives Brendan a Tamagotchi”It will be company for you,” she observesand he buys her a critical biography of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.) An eclectic musical score, ranging from choral hymns and vintage recordings by Irish tenor John McCormack to contemporary songs by Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop, mirrors the lovers’ disparate sensibilities. Walsh intercuts (and occasionally restages) scenes from The Quiet Man, The Producers, The African Queen, The Searchers, Breathless, and other screen classics to show how Trudy’s volatile influence transforms Brendan’s hitherto voyeuristic existence into an exciting, real-life movie.
When Brendan Met Trudy isn’t unflawed. Marie Mullen’s role as Brendan’s beleaguered mom never develops beyond the sophomoric joke of having the sweet old lady lard each sentence with “motherfucker,” and the film fails to deliver the knockout denouement that its opening reels lead us to expect. Still, I haven’t seen a comedy as consistently witty and inventive for quite a while. Even the epilogue, in which we’re informed of the characters’ subsequent fatesa device first employed, if I recall correctly, in American Graffiti and since done to deathcontains some zesty zingers, including a wry, last-minute cameo by Gabriel Byrne.
By now, moviegoers expecting sparks to fly when Brad meets Julia have surely heard that the starry pair fail to ignite in The Mexican. J.H. Wyman’s screenplay, a picaresque gangster comedy combining dim gags and callous violence, plays like something exhumed from the bottom of Quentin Tarantino’s trunk. Pitt stars as Jerry, a bumbling Los Angeles bagman forced by his mobster boss to travel to Mexico to retrieve a legendary antique pistol. This assignment infuriates Jerry’s girlfriend, Samantha (Roberts), to whom he has promised that he will abandon his life of crime. But Jerry’s survival depends on his successfully carrying out the Mexican job, so he heads south. Exasperated Samantha splits for Las Vegas, where she hopes to become a croupier but is kidnapped en route by Leroy (James Gandolfini), a hit man who holds her hostage to ensure that Jerry will return with the gun.
The south-of-the-border episodes are yawningly familiar stuff, with Pittaccompanied by a loyal, irascible dogklutzing through a dusty landscape populated by treacherous national and ethnic stereotypes. The Las Vegas sequences are somewhat livelier, if only because Roberts is gallantly partnered by Gandolfini, the movie’s most compelling performer. The diner scene in which Samantha, whose conversations overflow with psychobabble about relationships and commitment, discovers Leroy’s secrethe’s gayis written and played with a freshness absent elsewhere in the movie.
Director Gore Verbinski, whose previous credits include commercials, music videos, and the Nathan Lane comedy Mouse Hunt, fails to time the screenplay’s labored jokes effectively. The running gagsan out-of-whack traffic light that creates havoc, variant versions of the sought-after pistol’s mythic history presented in silent-movie stylebecome increasingly tedious rather than cumulatively amusing. The film’s mounting body count, gratuitous profanity, obligatory car chases, and unseemly preoccupation with excretory processes undercut its halfhearted stabs at humor and romance.
In their surprisingly few scenes together, consuming perhaps 20 minutes of The Mexican’s bloated two-hour running time, Pitt and Roberts relate more like bickering brother and sister than passionate lovers. The reason, I suspect, has less to do with an absence of sexual chemistry than an imbalance of talent. Even in a much skimpier role than usual and uncharacteristically deglamorized, Roberts possesses enough savvy and charm to command our attention. But Pitt’s expressive resources are limited to a boyish smile and flailing arms. Like the majority of younger American male stars, including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris O’Donnell, Keanu Reeves, and Matthew McConaughey, he lacks the emotional authority to merit leading roles. These callow actors seem frozen in adolescence, employing shallow charm and bland good looks to compensate for an absence of craft. If Hollywood persists in showcasing such lightweights, the only Oscar-worthy leading men will continue to be, as is the case with this year’s Best Actor nominees, foreigners (Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, and Geoffrey Rush) and aging Tinseltown veterans (Tom Hanks and Ed Harris). CP