Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Janeane Garofalo would really have to flub it big-time to alienate her fans. As a comedian, she’s smart, weird, and wired, and she boasts a patented dark vision that gets called “alternative” by the lazy. And in a business where such darkness uses the too-easy excuse of pain from a lifetime of exclusion, Garofalo’s effortless prettiness makes her almost a curiosity. No matter what she does to shlump and grease up, she’s cute as a button—if buttons can be hostile, elfin, and full of self-loathing.

Playing the lead in a romantic comedy is not the worst thing she could do—although fans are already grumbling about her near-glam clean-up job—and The Matchmaker isn’t the worst script in the genre. (The Truth About Cats and Dogs was, and she withstood that.) The film doesn’t force a decision about her looks on the audience; she plays a calmer, yuppie version of Janeane Garofalo, so everyone can relax into the spectacle of seeing her bludgeoned by romance.

Marcy Tizard is a political aide to Massachusetts Sen. John McGlory (Jay O. Sanders). McGlory’s re-election campaign is tanking, despite the most cutthroat tactics of chief of staff Nick (Denis Leary), so Nick gets the inspiration that digging up some genuine McGlorys from the old country might help the senator win the Irish-American vote. Marcy is dispatched to the fog-shrouded shores of Ballinagra, where she finds that not only isn’t there a McGlory to be found in the annals of the town, but that she has landed in the midst of a pesky matchmaking festival.

The Matchmaker doesn’t pretend you don’t know what’s coming, but part of enjoying genre films is not minding taking new routes to the same comfortable place. From the moment Marcy stumbles on Sean (David O’Hara) lolling unapologetically in the bathtub of her tiny inn room, it’s clear that no ham-handed matchmaker’s machinations will be able to keep these two apart. Actually, you suspect something’s up even before that: His dog has had the foresight to piss on her luggage.

Ireland itself has become such an object of fetishized romanticism to U.S. audiences—it’s like Russia with prettier girls and less of a sense of doom—that movies about the place tend to either tell the old mist-and-magic tales with plenty of twinkling and capering or maunder on about how the Troubles (these worlds never touch each other) are worthy of more personal than political concern because the principal parties romanticize themselves. (Gillies MacKinnon’s The Playboys was neither of these; predictably, no one saw it.) It’s perhaps not surprising that the matchmaking festival is a real annual event—that’s how stereotypes get that way—but while The Matchmaker goes the twinkle-and-caper route, it twists, explodes, scorns, and deflates many of the resident clichés. It’s a bit less besotted with the Irish than the Irish appear to be.

Legendary matchmaker Dermot (Milo O’Shea) spots the pretty Yank with the no-nonsense style that gives sudden way to goofiness and the self-protective talk of being tough and busy and missing Boston. He may run a tanning parlor on the side that’s really more of a blister factory, but Dermot has a good heart and a nose for a couple’s rightness. One of the film’s cuter conceits is the parade of unsuitable-looking pairs with glaring differences in age, race, style, and interests. A movie so dedicated to the ineffable science of chemistry had better guarantee that its leads will make a big boom once combined, and Garofalo and O’Hara do have an intangible charm.

In between dodging pasty-faced suitors, Marcy follows dead-end leads from the canny town genealogist to the cranky old man from a neighboring island, purportedly the area’s living historical repository. Sean follows Marcy around, making wisecracks and unwillingly revealing that he’s not just another aimless, tousle-haired, half-young wastrel tending bar among his friends—or, as Marcy puts it during a nicely timed yelling match, “dicking around in Brigadoon.” He used to be a journalist, and he does have soul even if, unlike every other man in Ballinagra, he can’t sing a note.

Things kick into high gear when McGlory and Nick show up demanding that Marcy produce some Irish relatives, and fast. In the film’s funniest scene, the anethical Nick decides that one paddy’s as good as another; he asks her to set up a photo op in which villagers posing as long-lost McGlorys have the senator in for tea. But Marcy’s busy on the Isle of Inishmore being seduced by fog and lager, and the mischievous Dermot introduces the cameras to his McGlorys—drooling, drunken, toothless, and squabbling. The villagers are a little insulted but not entirely surprised that the Americans would unquestioningly accept these people as the inhabitants of a typical household. The scene, like the best parts of this slight-but-enjoyable comedy, succeeds by messing not with the Irish but with our fantasies of them.

Soul Food is the kind of tough/sentimental women’s movie that floats or sinks depending on the strength of the actresses, so it’s a good thing that Vivica A. Fox and Nia Long, neither of whom has ever looked prettier, hold this thing up while it flounders around wondering how to make use of Vanessa Williams, who has never looked worse. The three play sisters: Williams is Teri, the cold, uptight lawyer who calls herself an “attorney” and reflexively reminds everyone of every penny she’s ever spent helping them. Fox plays Max, the angelic housewife who spars heatedly with Teri about anything and everything; their animosity springs from outgoing young Max’s having snatched Teri’s boyfriend from under her nose (and having married him) 10 years earlier. Long is Bird, the youngest, who marries ex-con Lem (Mekhi Phifer) with high hopes for their future. But when the family’s source of strength, Big Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall) falls ill, the family falls apart.

Most of their travails are predictable. The minute bad cousin Faith (Gina Ravera) comes sashaying in, trouble written all over her leopard-skin coat, you know one of the husbands will be vulnerable to this ex-exotic dancer’s loose charms. And if Lem really wants to start over, he shouldn’t keep a gun in his glove compartment. As for the sisters, they need to stop screaming at each other, although those are the only times Williams’ character comes alive.

Writer-director George Tillman Jr. obviously put his heart into this story; the clichés of family drama are invested with more life here than we’re used to seeing—the house that’s almost put up for sale, infidelity and reconciliation, the ritual of Sunday dinners, all that lovingly prepared food. (As if any of these women have downed so much as a mouthful of macaroni and cheese in their lives.) But they’re still clichés, in spite of their sweetness and that of the lovely actresses.

It’s only at the end that Soul Food tries something new. At a big family dinner orchestrated by the perfect little kid, Max’s son Ahmad (Brandon Hammond), the whole bitter, infighting clan gathers for what will certainly be a conciliatory meal, bathed in the golden glow afforded by such carefully lit interiors. But everyone just starts screaming at one another again—over money, pride, or nothing at all—and for a moment, this photogenic, predictable big-screen family starts to look a lot like one’s own. CP