Comic and grotesque, lush and surreal, Patrick McCabe’s novel of everyday childhood psychosis is brought to life by Neil Jordan with perfect understanding. The author and the director collaborated on the screenplay adapation, and there isn’t a false note in the dialogue, narration, or images.
The Butcher Boy shows how the imaginative, sociopathic 12-year-old Francie Brady (Eaamon Owens) finds escape from an oppressive Irish town in a pop apocalypse of comic books, Catholicism, nuclear war, and, finally, a monstrous act of violence. With his wide smile and menacing pudding bowl-cut red hair, Francie is a gregarious little bully, lolling lakeside with his best pal Joe (Alan Boyle), their way of fishing is to eat candy bars and bellow, “Fish! Fuck off!”, and chatting in the easeful manner of grown-up self-protectiveness with the local biddies. “You’ve never said a truer word, Missus,” Francie will tell the ladies with a wink, eerily young to be sporting such received mannerisms.
The old birds call him a character, but Francie’s defensive glibness masks his deteriorating sense of connection with the real world. No one outside these facile interactions is fit to judge the appropriateness of his behavior. His lonely mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) is vague and suicidal, prone to breakdowns and scary, manic episodes of sociability, evidenced most luridly by the cake-and-bun-baking frenzy she embarks on to welcome her brother Alo (Ian Hart), who has glamorously gone to England. Da Brady (Stephen Rea) is a hopeless drunkard who turns violent or sulky between bouts of angelic trumpet-playing. Francie’s home life is so cruel, distant, and unreasonable that he can’t tell the difference between his own real cruelties and the trivial trespasses that unhinge his father.
It’s easy to forget that Francie is a little kid; he’s big for his age (Joe is thin and fine-featured), and his charming, boastful line of patter, liberally sprinkled with winks and other adult gestures, is deceptively confident. He knows on some level that his life is miserable, but he won’t blame his family; in a neat trick of psychological displacement, fueled by the pious disapproval of the neighbors, Francie idolizes his inept parents and fixates his rage on the pretentious Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw, brilliantly teasing out shades of the character’s strict, unwitting sexiness).
The Nugents, Missus and her grind son, Phillip, have been to England as well, and Mrs. Nugent berates the Bradys like the other town frumps. This fact ignites Francie’s resentment and concentrates his anger against her. As Francie’s family begins to disintegrate, his frantic energy and grandiose manner make him the easiest target for the clucking of the town biddies. Mistaking small-town disapproval, however unpleasant or unfair, as accusations of sin, Francie retreats into his highly colored world of comic books and American action television, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the thick, gilded atmosphere of Irish Catholicism, muddling up his fantasies with thoughts of world destruction and personal salvation.
The Butcher Boy is a beautiful-looking film, color-saturated and glowing, in a rural Irish town and the big-city delights of Dublin as seen though the eyes of a little boy in constant motion, for whom life is all Flash Bars and violent promise. Sent away to boarding school after an act of scatalogical aggression against the Nugents, Francie is visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary (Sinead O’Connor, lovely and severe). She becomes his confidante and advisor, telling him what he wants to hear, and Jordan paints her in the kitschy, overbright colors of a thrift-store print, just like the ones that hang on the walls of town businesses and homes, along with photos of the Kennedys.
On his correctional soujorns, Francie learns the secret of getting away with anything, be as rotten as possible, then be a little less rotten, and everyone will reward you for your restraint and hard work. When he’s released back home, he’s still “Francie the bad bastard,” as the rollicking, relentless narration (by Stephen Rea) goes, whom everyone blames for things he didn’t do but nobody blames enough for things he did.
Jordan re-creates the novel’s voice, toning down Francie’s manic, digressive narrative with no loss of vigor. Owens is a remarkable find, walking the thin line between youthful energy and horrific violence; Francie is as fascinating as any fictional villain and as appealing as any imaginative but needy child. His malignity is born out of loss, his mental resourcefulness having outpaced the limits of his family and the town, but he’s none the less crazed and vengeful for the sadness that fuels him.
Jordan and McCabe have created an idiosyncratic archetype of the modern era, the grinning, mischievous mask draped over the death’s-head, a potently Irish example of the “new breed, born in chaos” of the early ’60s, which Godard was documenting across the water. Only the minor-key coda of the grown and broken Francie seeks judgment. With his comic arpeggios, his quick processing of Ireland’s class hierarchy, his lightning calculations figuring how to stay on top of the colleague food chain and skirt the authorities, Francie Brady is a Huck Finn for the atomic age, meeting the new world with obliterating savagery.
By all accounts, Stephen McCauley’s novel The Object of My Affection was a fresh and intelligent look at the entanglements of love in a post-nuclear family world. It bears a tricky premise, a straight woman in love with a gay man, that threatens to be too unwieldy for a talent less fine-grained than McCauley’s. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein has never been known for negotiating the grayer shoals of male-female relationships, and her ham-fisted adaptation for the screen is dumb and Hollywoody, with a veneer of New York cleverness thinly glossing the works.
Jennifer Aniston plays Nina Borowski, a sympathetic social worker with an overbearing boyfriend, Vince (Mad About You’s John Pankow), and a spare room in her Cobble Hill apartment. At a dinner party hosted by her society-struck stepsister and brother-in-law (Alan Alda), she meets George Hanson (Paul Rudd), who seems to have been dumped by his professor boyfriend (Tim Daly). She offers George the spare room, and the two form a bond of friendship that precludes either of them from getting on with their love lives. It isn’t until Nina finds out she’s pregnant that she chooses George over Vince.
There’s lots of talk about how you can’t choose whom you fall in love with; the movie’s musical motif is “You Were Meant for Me.” Nina is seen as helplessly and correctly following her passion, she’s been struck by Cupid’s dart and therefore not responsible for the horrible position she puts her best friend in. But that’s garbage, you do choose who you fall in love with, because you take the situation along with the person. (That’s why unenlightened women keep marrying their fathers.) Nina’s fixation on George is grimy and unfair, it denies him his sexuality, a great big part of anyone’s (forgive me) personhood, and her willful blindness dehumanizes him.
None of this is manifest in the script, which makes Nina look more loyal than screwed-up. It keeps pushing them together as if she knows something we don’t, a blind date for George is played for laughs when he meets a famous ear-nose-and-throat doctor in a place very mildly suggesting a leather bar. The guy seems nice enough, but we’re supposed to hoot at his unsuitability because he’s wearing a white T-shirt and a vest, obliquely suggesting hard-core antics that would be all wrong for our khaki-clad hero.
No script should lag this far behind the audience. The characters strike poses so that they can be maneuvered into increasingly complicated romantic situations, even though these situations say nothing about their psychology. When shut-out Vince complains that the man who helps raise the baby should take some “physical responsibility” for it, he’s right. Meddlesome and know-it-all he may be, but his only sin against Nina’s pregnancy is that he’s too zealously involved. And when Nina meets the right guy, everyone can spot it, but the movie plays their scene, he’s a handsome, single, kid-loving cop, as if it’s an unimportant interlude.
Wasserstein’s strongest when skewering the sophisticated parasites of the Upper East Side and their conventional liberalism, but once Alda goes offscreen, the script grows dull and muddled. Her humor is tepid and pleasure-hating, and there are lazy bits, like a precociously smart, violin-playing Asian third-grader and a gay romance that begins with the time-honored, “Wanna go for a swim?” Hytner’s wishy-washy direction doesn’t help. The scene of Nina’s big confession is badly staged at an amusement park, and he wrings no irony out of lines likes George’s heel boyfriend saying, “I didn’t want to tell you until you were ready.”
Everything is so awkwardly handled that it takes an actor of Nigel Hawthorne’s stature to refocus the movie. He plays Rodney, a powerful theater critic, locked by his own choosing into a nonsexual mentor relationship with an eager young actor. The young man sets the terms of their nonaffair, and the untenability of this situation is compared with Nina’s hopeless yearnings. The two couples are mirror images of each other, it’s only this recognition that spurs Nina to recognize that she’s not thinking of the baby, or even George, but only of herself.
Rudd and Aniston have charm, chemistry, and sass together; their developing friendship is shown convincingly. But because the movie shuts out any possibilities other than George in terms of Nina’s love life, it bypasses potentially interesting resonances. George and Nina almost make love, she’s got her hand down his pants when the phone rings (it’s his ex), a monstrously unsettling sight to see. How much better the movie would have been if it had contrasted the sick, selfish wrongheadedness of her desire for a gay man, young, pretty, and white like herself against a normal, happy union between Nina and the cop, who’s young, handsome and black. (The context would provide all the irony.) In a world in which interracial romance is played as sci-fi, it would have been nice to see things work out in a nonexplosive manner.
Well, work out earlier, because everyone ends up with the right man. The Object of My Affection goes through tortouous, often unpleasant contortions to end up in an ideal Hollywoodland of liberal structures. Little Molly is born into a social-worker’s dream, with a surfeit of caregivers, but no actual family.