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Alopecic men, in whose gleaming legion I march, struggle, without much success, to find some blessing in baldness. Science tells us that we are endowed with more testosterone than our brothers—a rather cold comfort as we watch prospective conquests pursue hormonally inferior rivals. Any anticipated savings on barbering prove illusory: We still need to have the fringe areas trimmed, thereby receiving less tonsorial bang for our bucks than our hirsute counterparts. The sole economic advantage is reduced outlay for shampoos, conditioners, and mousses.

As with love and death, there’s no effective cure for baldness. Transplants, viewed from above, resemble freshly planted cornfields. Weaves look like organic scouring pads. Sprays briefly color the scalp and, subsequently, the bathtub. Rogaine merely postpones the inevitable. Hairpieces, no matter how expensive, can be detected from a half-block away. If you don’t believe me, summon up an image of Burt Reynolds.

Like great clowns, toupee wearers are both funny and pathetic. One can’t help being amused by the sight of what appear to be the remains of a small woodland animal spread out on the pate of a man who assumes that onlookers won’t notice the spuriousness of this adornment. Nor can one fail to be touched by the insecurity and wan hopefulness of someone who believes that wearing a rug will somehow vanquish the workings of genetics and time.

The rueful absurdity of bewigged men isn’t the central theme of director Barry Levinson’s An Everlasting Piece, but it harmonizes with the movie’s blend of comedy and pathos. In battle-scarred Belfast in the ’80s, two young barbers, Colm (Barry McEvoy), a cocky Catholic, and George (Brian F. O’Byrne), a pusillanimous Protestant, devise a get-rich-quick scheme. While cutting hair in a mental hospital, they discover that one of the inmates, a wacko known as “the Scalper” (Billy Connolly), held the Northern Ireland toupee monopoly prior to savaging several of his disgruntled customers. Colm and George contact an English hairpiece manufacturer, Wigs of Wimbledon, to obtain the Scalper’s lapsed franchise—only to learn that a rival group, Toupee or Not Toupee, has made a similar proposal. The supplier pits the would-be entrepreneurs against each other, with the contract to be awarded to the applicant who manages to peddle the most rugs by midnight on Christmas Eve.

McEvoy, who wrote the original screenplay, based his plot on reminiscences of his father, an Irish expatriate who endured some hair-raising experiences while selling toupees to Belfast’s warring Catholic and Protestant factions. Although filled with lively, colorful vignettes, An Everlasting Piece never quite gels. As often happens when performers pen scripts, the movie is designed as a collection of acting set pieces and lacks a sense of overarching structure. Some of the skits are diverting, among them a rhyming competition between Colm and George (the latter fancies himself a poet), a desperate sales pitch to a farmer in a cow barn, and several farcical encounters with sinister, chrome-domed IRA members. But McEvoy fails to build the dramatic momentum of the protagonists’ competition with their rivals, leading to an inconsequential rather than a triumphant denouement.

Levinson, who also produced the movie, wasn’t the ideal director to mold McEvoy’s fragmented script. He’s an oddly inconsistent filmmaker, as likely to turn out a big-budget flop (Toys, Jimmy Hollywood, Sphere) as an artistic or commercial success. Even his hits— Rain Man and Wag the Dog, his much-admired Baltimore movies (Diner, Avalon), and his award-winning television series Homicide: Life on the Street—tend to be episodic and unevenly paced. But Levinson’s strengths—his empathy with actors, skill at developing characters, and sensitivity to environment—are manifest in An Everlasting Piece. McEvoy and O’Byrne shine in their first major screen roles, tartly supported by Anna Friel as Colm’s smart, outspoken girlfriend, Bronagh. (The only debatable member of the ensemble is Connolly, who is permitted to bellow and flail like King Lear in extremis.) Although the brutality of Northern Ireland’s troubles is largely implied, cinematographer Seamus Deasy’s images of Belfast locations evoke the atmosphere of a besieged city, with rubble-strewn streets, political graffiti, and barbed wire encaging the characters’ cramped, working-class row houses.

I can’t wholeheartedly urge readers to rush out to An Everlasting Piece, but I wouldn’t advise anyone against seeing it, either. It’s frequently, if mildly, entertaining but never achieves the hilarity suggested by its poster art—a wig perched atop our planet accompanied by the legend “Piece on Earth.” This image crystallizes an idea that the movie toys with but fails to develop: that perhaps the strife that wracks this male-dominated, increasingly defoliated globe would cease if somebody could figure out a way to crown it

with an undetectable rug. CP