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Lots of movies make a hash of the books from which they’re derived; less frequently, a movie improves on its literary source. Rarely, though, are film and novel so well matched as novelist Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper and director Stephen Frears’ version of it.
That, in no small part, is because Doyle didn’t let this one get away from him the way The Commitments did. His first novel about the working-class north Dublin neighborhood of Barrytown, that one fell into the clutches of the dreaded Alan Parker, who hyped the hell out of it (and cut the final punch line to boot). Doyle alone wrote the script for this second Barrytown tale (he shared the credit with two others last time), and with Frears’ help has retained the book’s delicate blend of satire and salute. Modest and sweet, the cinematic Snapper is not a cavalcade of laughs; rather, it summons a succession of smiles.
The film returns not merely to the neighborhood but also to the house of The Commitments, that of the clamorous, contentious, but ultimately loving Rabbittes. (The family is identified as the Curleys because the previous flick’s producers own the rights to the Rabbitte name, but they’re Rabbittes in the book.) This time, the focus is not on Jimmy but on his 20-year-old sister Sharon (Tina Kellegher) and their father Dessie (Colm Meaney), who forge an awkward, endearing alliance after Sharon matter-of-factly announces she’s pregnant (“up the pole,” in Barrytown slang) and expecting a baby (“a snapper”).
It’s Sharon who faces the physical travails of pregnancy, but emotionally her father rides a parallel roller coaster. As the date approaches, Dessie recounts where he was when each of his six children was born (never anywhere near the delivery room) and then volunteers to join his daughter when she delivers. He’s so involved that he reads up on pregnancy and related subjects, discovering a new sexual technique in the process. “Where’d you learn to do that?,” asks his bemused wife Kay (Ruth McCabe); “In a buke,” he explains.
Grandad-to-be Dessie can play the anxious father because no one else has the role. Sharon refuses to name the baby’s sire, finally announcing that it was a Spanish sailor on a two-day pass. She only offers that story, though, after the neighborhood is convulsed by the rumor that the culprit is actually George Burgess (Pat Laffan), a fat, middle-age neighbor who’s the father of one of Sharon’s friends and the coach of her youngest brother’s soccer team. Although not accepted with enthusiasm in the Curley household, the gossip ultimately brings Dessie and Sharon even closer together; at the Burgesses’, however, things fall apart.
Like the Curleys—or the unseen postman heard singing “Return to Sender,” or the doctor who announces Sharon’s labor with “Thunderbirds are go!”—Burgess can best express himself in the banal language of popular culture; “He’s torn between two lovers,” he explains.
When Kay suggests that they tell their younger daughters that having a baby out of wedlock is wrong, Dessie demurs. He doesn’t want to stigmatize his grandchild, he argues. Besides, “I’m only the dad. They’d laugh at me.” (Sharon sings along to “Papa Don’t Preach” at the local karaoke machine, but Papa rarely does—preach, that is.) Though hardly a free thinker, Dessie’s not about to tear apart the family over an abstract moral code, however deeply ingrained. (Another Irish-cinema cliché gone missing here is the grim weight of the Roman Catholic Church.)
Doyle’s script adds some incidents and subtracts others, but the basic story and the essential timbre of the novel survive. At the center is Dessie, who functions as both the family’s patriarch and jester. Though inclined to visit the pub every night, he’s far from the stereotypical drunken Irish sad-sack routinely offered by recent movies as diverse as Into the West and The Playboys. By turns playful and protective, his complex reactions to Sharon’s pregnancy offer as evocative a guide to the rapid changes in contemporary Ireland as do the alien programs (MTV, American baseball) now appearing on the Curleys’ TV.
Both sardonic and sympathetic, Frears’ low-budget, unfussy treatment neatly fits Doyle’s small, sub tle tale and the effervescent perform ances of the ensemble cast. Where The Commitments lost the irony of “Dublin soul” attempting to emulate the larger-than-life swagger of James Brown, The Snapper remains life-size—the size of Dessie Curley, a man whose quotidian gallantry impels but never overwhelms this charming movie.
Just as The Snapper manages to retain the distinctive flavor of Doyle’s prose, so Wayne’s World 2 accurately registers the sensibility of its auteur: Wayne. Indeed, in its assured invention of an arrested-development demimonde, WW2 resembles not all those (mostly pathetic) Saturday Night Live offshoots, but rather Strange Brew, the oddly wonderful Bob and Doug MacKenzie tour de force that marked both the pinnacle and the end of the SCTV flick.
Wayne’s world is silly, sophomoric, and sexist, but it is not without its own shambling integrity; Mike Myers, his co-scripters Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner, and new director Stephen Surjik understand their characters and milieu a lot better than Merchant/Ivory do The Remains of the Day or Robert Altman does Raymond Carver. Both existing in and actually creating their own late-adolescent paradise of facetiousness, horniness, and hard rock, Wayne (Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) triumph over the adult world, mostly through that reliable medium of prolonged teen rebellion: rock ‘n’ roll. Though Wayne’s musical heroes are ’70s hard rockers, he could well sing along (with Morrissey), “No I never had a job/Because I never wanted one.”
WW2 is full of dream sequences, asides, and Brechtian alienation devices, but the whole thing is of course a fantasy: In no city in the world—let alone Aurora, Ill.—are there this many classically proportioned women wearing skin-tight minidresses. Wayne’s quick mastery of Chinese (in the first film) and his kung fu skills (demonstrated in this one) are no more preposterous than his relationship with Cassandra (Tia Carrere), the exotic guitar-goddess who contentedly does Wayne’s laundry. That Cassandra doesn’t have much of a personality makes perfect sense; like most teen-age boys, Wayne has spent more time thinking about what his dream girl would look like than talk like. Cassandra’s conjured from Wayne’s imagination, much as are such other “babes” as Kim Basinger, Heather Locklear, and Drew Barrymore, all of whom have small, slink-on parts here.
With enough gags for 10 Chevy Chase comedies, WW2 offers more than sex-bomb icons. The script provides Wayne with a new rival for Cassandra, a slippery record-producer (Christopher Walken), as well as a new cause: Waynestock, a rock festival decreed by the ghost of Jim Morrison in simultaneous sendups of The Doors and Field of Dreams that lead to one of The Graduate. (Don’t leave until the credits finish, or you’ll miss Oliver Stone’s Indian shaman hilariously transformed into another mass-media totem.) The pileup of ’70s rock (Aerosmith appears twice), sight gags, and TV and movie parodies is fast, frantic, and frequently on-target. This is a far more cogent study of the ’70s revival than Dazed and Confused, and the Village People bit is as priceless as it is inevitable.
Most remarkable, though, is the archly playful self-consciousness, which recalls not just SCTV (the shots of Wayne and Garth doubles sightseeing in London echo the “Mrs. Prickley’s double” running gag of SCTV’s Towering Inferno epic) but the likes of Richard Lester and Jean-Luc Godard. At Wayne’s on-screen suggestion, WW2 switches from subtitles to dubbing, and replaces a bland bit-player with a melodramatic Charlton Heston; the film’s namesake is as much in control as the John Gielgud character who choreographs Alain Resnais’ Providence. Where the “classy” Remains of the Day clumsily misplaces its protagonist’s consciousness, muddling things with extraneous points of view, the “trashy” WW2 makes no such error. Wayne himself may be merely a slacker-stereotype clown, but Myers gives Wayne’s world a conviction and consistency more than a few big-time filmmakers should envy.