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A cookie-cutter thriller iced with a squiggle of integrity, The Devil’s Own is the tale of a very good good guy and a very good bad guy. That element of moral ambiguity is bold stuff by the standards of mainstream Hollywood thrillers, but it’s not bold enough. Alan J. Pakula’s film is unlikely to please viewers who are most comfortable with formula, and will surely disappoint those who remember those Pakula films (Klute, All the President’s Men) that transcended such formulas.
Frankie McGuire is introduced first, as an 8-year-old who watches his father shot dead during the family supper. Grown up and dangerous, Frankie (Brad Pitt with an ostentatious but consistent accent) must be smuggled out of Belfast after a shootout with British troops that seems to leave dozens dead. (If such confrontations were as routine as the filmmakers suggest, there would be no Northern Ireland left.) Under the alias Rory Devaney, Frankie is sent to New York, where a judge who secretly raises funds for the IRA finds him an inconspicuous home: the basement of Irish-American cop Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford).
As in so many of his films, Ford plays the Last Good Man, a policeman who’s more of a social worker than an enforcer, as well as a devoted protector/provider for wife Sheila (Margaret Colin) and their three daughters. As Frankie/Rory sets out to acquire some Stinger missiles to blast British helicopters from the sky, he settles in with a family out of a ’50s sitcom. (In this section’s most self-consciously adorable scene, the O’Mearas’ 5-year-old asks Rory to marry her.) The young visitor also falls for Megan Doherty (Surviving Picasso’s Natascha McElhone), a Belfast lass who’s now the nanny for the judge’s family.
Tom and Rory bond over glasses of Guinness and the pool table at a local bar, but soon things unravel. Tom is faced with a moral dilemma when his overeager partner, Eddie Diaz (Ruben Blades), shoots a suspect. Then Stinger-missile merchant Billy Burke (Treat Williams), impatient for his money, becomes a problem for Rory. When he sends thugs to the O’Mearas’ house, Tom begins to realize that Rory is not what he seems. Still, Tom seems more interested in saving the young man than in punishing him.
Burke is the only unalloyed villain, and his feud with Rory provides most of the brutality and pyrotechnics required of a contemporary thriller. Yet the film can’t redeem Rory, who arrives in the U.S. with more ambiguous blood on his hands than can be permitted a Hollywood hero. “Don’t look for happy endings, Tom,” Rory overobviously tells his benefactor. “It’s not an American story. It’s an Irish one.”
Any writer who would feel it necessary to provide the third of those sentences to make the point is clearly not a subtle man. The film’s script (credited to David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick, and Kevin Jarre, but reportedly much reworked in a crisis mode) has only one trick: the character of Rory, ingratiating and well-meaning but murderous. Ultimately, that’s not much. Pakula’s film could just as easily have been about a member of the Russian mob, a Hong Kong triad, or any other all-purpose exotic violent faction. The Devil’s Own is just amiable exploitation compared to such films as In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son. Those are real Irish stories.
The Daytrippers stars Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, and Campbell Scott, so frustrated indie-filmgoers would be justified in thinking they already saw it last year under a different name. Wasn’t it called Walking, Talking, Kicking, and Screaming With Disaster on the Big Night?
It might as well have been. This is one of those earnest, affable, largely interchangeable low-budget comedies that aspire to satire but only manage hip sitcommery. Inspired by an uncomfortable family car ride, writer/director Greg Mottola has crafted a film that does little more than evoke the uncomfortableness of a family car ride.
Eliza D’Amico (Hope Davis) is a happily married Long Islander, living near her parents, domineering Rita Malone (Ann Meara) and almost-defeated Jim Malone (Pat McNamara). Eliza’s husband Louis (Tucci) works for a publisher in Manhattan, and her sister Jo (Posey) and boyfriend Carl (Schreiber) are college students home for the holidays. When Eliza finds a note that suggests that Louis is having an affair, she consults Rita, who piles the whole gang into the station wagon for the drive to “the city.” Finding Louis missing from his office, the entourage plunges into the world of book parties and Soho soirees to find him.
This semiglamorous world provides the tiniest of counterpoints to Carl, an aspiring writer working on a social-comment novel about a man born with a dog’s head. At one literary event, Carl is peeved and Jo is thrilled to meet Eddie (Scott), an actual published novelist. Carl says pompous things like, “Try to forgive your mothershe’s the victim of a deadening system,” but he’s not such a bad guy. Less pretentious but more selfish, Jo tries to elude Carl so she can flirt with Eddie.
This episode doesn’t amount to much, but at least it provides some character development. The quintet’s other encounters are less productive: After Rita faints, the family is invited into the apartment of a secretive father-and-son duo who are first understandably suspicious, but then improbably generous; later, Eliza is recruited to help two older women who are fighting over their dead mother’s possessions. These events do little more than stall the “surprise ending,” which few will find shocking.
The slim narrative thread connecting the central story to the asides is that they’re all about troubled families. Explains Mottola of his film, “there is a group of people who, by genetic chance, you are connected to for lifeyet they can make you feel more disconnected than anyone else on Earth.” The problem with this theme is that The Daytrippers captures only the disconnection and not the connection. None of these people seems profoundly linked, so the potential unraveling of their relationships is unaffecting. If one or more of these three couples should disengage by the story’s end…well, why not? After all, the movie’s over.CP