Thursday, March 24, 2011

John Gray's WHITE IRISH DRINKERS: the transition of a mid-70s Brooklyn family

Sometimes a fine acting ensemble can very nearly salvage a movie by placing us viewers so firmly in the grasp of the characters portrayed that we'll follow them anywhere. Or just about. In addition to its actors, there is so much that's good about John Gray's new "family" film WHITE IRISH DRINKERS that this just makes me wish it were better. My companion quit watching at around the three-quarter mark (the running time is 109 minutes) because he found it "phony," but I was with the film for its entire way -- even though I admit that it goes over the top too often, especially at the point when its hero makes a choice that defies all credibility and so loses our credence. I call this a "family" film in quotes because, although it's indeed about a family, it's a long, long way from Disney.

The clan in question is made up of mother Margaret (Karen Allen), father Patrick (Stephen Lang) and brothers Danny (the elder, played by Geoffrey Wigdor) and Brian (Nick Thurston, a newcomer who should go far). Writer/director Gray (shown at left) has imagined these people with a nice combination of qualities both specific and mythic. Dad's a drunk, mom's too subservient (this is the mid-1970s, remember), the older kid's a criminal, while the younger is artistic (and no, this does not mean "gay," though other characters often tease him with that epithet ). Within these somewhat standard descriptions, Gray provides plenty of telling detail and each actor brings enough strength and focus to the role so that these people live -- and vibrantly.

Satellite characters include the boss at the single screen movie theater where Brian works (the always-good Peter Riegert, above, left, whom you might say steals the movie), and a high-school crush of Brian's (another newcomer Leslie Murphybelow, right, with Thurston) who makes an appearance at a local bar where she suddenly and unknowingly doubles as a "model" in one of the film's original and most appealing scenes.

Mr. Gray packs a lot into his over-stuffed film -- coming of age, sexual initiation (well, I think it was the kid's first time, though he's awfully skilled for a beginner), crime and punishment, parent/child problems, the boss-as-mentor thing, loyalty issues -- but because so much of it is interesting and fun (and well-performed!), we're mostly happy to go along. It's when melodrama far exceeds drama and characters starts making ridiculous choices (or spouting, in the case of dad, memories as bad monologues) that red flags go up.

While the movie manages to recover -- and features one hell of a good surprise at the climax -- it never quite builds back to the level it once attained. Yet Ms Allen (above), who has not had a movie role this good in quite some time, bring fine depth and feeling to her performance, as does Mr. Lang (below) -- who is unfortunately saddled with the film's worst clichés and nonsense (you'd have to be a shrink to understand the motivation behind his speech about the accident his elder son had, how he reacted to it, and why this has remotely to do with the reason he keeps beating the kid bloody).

As brother Danny, Wigdor (below, left) brings a nice sneer-n'-jeer quality coupled to genuine caring plus a good dose of sex appeal, while Thurston is terrific -- energized, vibrant and appealing as Brian. His body however (he's nude in a couple of scenes) looks far too buffed and ripped for the mid-70s, when few young guys worked out to this extent, and certainly not one who spends all his free time in the basement, drawing. Sure, the actor is nice to look at, but this effectively destroys the film's time period -- for a scene or two, at least.

The denouement leaves something to be desired, as well. I take it that the filmmaker means his punch-out ending to be about justice at last delivered, but it comes across as nearly the reverse -- making this a movie about a son turning into the worst part of his father. This, in itself, would be quite believable, if negative, but the movie seems to want us to see it as something much more positive and uplifting. Hmmm...

White Irish Drinkers, from Screen Media Films, open this Friday, March 25, at NYC's Landmark Sunshine Cinema. For a schedule of cities and theaters that the film will hit in the coming weeks and months, click here.

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