Hyped as this year’s The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine does share a number of surface elements with its sleeper predecessor. It’s a cuddly, modest English import about the life-affirming trials of heavily accented little people with rather less dental care and muscle tone than stateside audiences are used to. But the comparison ends there; Ned Devine is actually closer to being a money-hungry retooling of Gillies MacKinnon’s excellent, underseen The Playboys, coarsened and dumbed down for a U.S. crowd that romanticizes the toothless misery of rural Ireland.
The lottery-crazed residents of Tully More (population 52 and shrinking) learn that a local has won 6-million-plus pounds, but no one knows who. Like Lucy and Ethel on a film star’s scent, Jackie O’Shea (Ian Bannen) and his friend Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) concoct scheme after scheme to smoke out the winner. Bannen and Kelly have brilliant, convincing chemistry as the elderly plotters; they’re like little boys playing G-men as they follow their hunches, sweet-talking various neighbors in hopes of earning a chunk of the windfall. Jackie’s sexy, indomitable wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) wastes a perfectly good meat pie on the local postmistress, who has a misleading tendency to sing (badly) to pass the time. Figuring big bucks to be a young man’s game, the two old slyboots ply “Pig” Finn (James Nesbitt) with pints and a little something extra: “We bought you some expensive fruity soaps” they tell the bewildered pig farmer.
When the intuitive method fails, the O’Sheas host a grand party for all the potential winners, thereby convincing the guests that their hosts are the ones to have struck gold. Finally, Jackie and Michael figure out that their one no-show is Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh), whom they discover quite dead and still clutching the coveted winning ticket. After very funny attempts to wrestle Ned’s face into an expression more befitting of an ordinary untimely heart attack than joyful shock, they decide that Michael must pose as the winner for as long as it takes for the inspectors to hand over the money. Because this scheme depends on the cooperation of every living Tully Moron, they agree to divide the money evenly among all residents.
Naturally, this plan brings the community together while threatening to shatter the men’s friendship. The antics surrounding the massive subterfugeMichael’s naked motorbike ride being the best of themare less interesting than the oddball B-plots that play around the film’s edges. Pig Finn yearns for the hand of a black-haired beauty named Maggie (Susan Lynch), who can’t bear his farmyard smell, thus making a recurring motif of the fruity soaps. Maggie’s little boy, whose paternity is in question, hangs around the town’s young piano-playing priest asking difficult questions such as “Do you know any songs by Jesus?” and “What’s it like to work for someone you’ve never met?”
Waking Ned Devine has plenty of organic charm in its array of quirky residents and a fine ear for the way people who’ve known each other for decades interact when a foreign elementin this case greedenters their isolated world. But it’s lazy, larding the flaky pastry with wacky bits and sliding by on a couple of glaring unlikelihoodswouldn’t Maggie’s single maternity have changed her relations with the tightknit islanders? And in a village of 52 people, tell me how it takes three days for anyone to notice Ned Devine’s absence.
The film loses its charm near the end, when Jackie and Michael’s plan is threatened by the town witch, Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey). She’s a nasty, wheelchair-bound womanwith a mouth twice the size of Mick Jagger’swho is trotted out every so often to act contrary, building up to her refusal, for no discernible reason, to play along with the old boys’ scheme. This twist manages to ennoble the islanders’ money lust, since it casts them as community-spirited and her as the kind of fink who goes running to tattle to authority when she doesn’t get her way. But the script’s treatment of Lizzy jars the tone of pleasant if undistinguished rural comedy; she is dispatched with an alacrity and violence that are downright American, to the wan cheers of the nonplused audience. (Rude language also ups the international stakes.) Director Kirk Jones does little to eke the charm out of the harsh island landscape, unlike most directors handed a slice of seaside Ireland on a plate. Tully More looks like a lousy place to live; perhaps the appeal of 100,000-plus pounds doesn’t arise from sheer greed on the locals’ partit sounds like just enough money to move to London and open that fruity-soap shop.CP