Category: Archive

Film Review ‘Piece’ de resistance

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

AN EVERLASTING PIECE, by Barry McEvoy. Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Barry McEvoy, Brian F. O’Byrne, Anna Friel and Billy Connolly. Dreamworks Pictures and Columbia Pictures.

A couple of script readings held last year in the Irish bars of the East Village went down a storm with local audiences, and the word soon spread around town that a talented young actor from Northern Ireland had written the funniest Irish screenplay in ages.

Belfast native Barry McEvoy had developed "An Everlasting Piece," an absurd tale of wig salesmen and their smooth-pated clientele, from the stories that his barber father told around the family dinner table when he was a kid. McEvoy honed his dad’s material into a snappy comedy that caught the attention of several producers with Hollywood clout, and the script soon landed on all the right desks in Los Angeles. Negotiations on both coasts quickly led to a deal with Dreamworks to shoot the film in Ireland in the spring of this year, with Barry Levinson directing. The film wrapped in Dublin during the summer, and has been quickly edited, scored and packaged for a limited Christmas release in New York and L.A. to qualify for this year’s Oscar nominations.

The completed film gives us a very different take on 1980s Northern Ireland, one that focuses not on the grim reality of the Troubles, but on the crazy scams people pursue in order to survive when their city becomes a battle zone. The narrative mixes eccentric incidents from the writer’s family background with the daily hassles of life before the cease-fire — not the big issues of we’ve seen a dozen times, but the non-fatal confrontations where, for example, Catholics are expected to stand to attention for "God Save the Queen" in the cinema when the film is over, and every minor argument seems to dredge up eight centuries of history.

The film strives to present the human face of the opposed forces that choked Belfast for three decades, showing the terrorist gunman from the TV news as the guy next door — the local milkman, or a bald guy in an anorak worrying about his receding hairline. McEvoy even takes the daring (and decidely dodgy) step of sympathetically portraying the British army, collectively rather than individually, a strategy that might not fly on his home turf and will make little sense to cinema audiences used to perceiving the British soldiers as perennial baddies. But the intractability of the Northern Ireland problem is rooted in part in a refusal to see the enemy as anything other than a demonized monolithic organization, without individual human qualities, and the screenwriter’s effort to change that perception is commendable.

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Screenwriter McEvoy himself plays the lead role of Colm O’Neill, a cocky Catholic barber who works in a mental hospital and fancies himself at devising get-rich-quick schemes. An opportunity presents itself when the hospital gets a new patient known as The Scalper, a wig vendor who flipped out and started skinning his customers. Realizing that the surviving baldheads need coverage, Colm enlists his shy Protestant colleague, George Post (Brian F. O’Byrne) to help him get hold of The Scalper’s client list and corner the wig market in Northern Ireland. With the help of Colm’s determined girlfriend Bronagh (Anna Friel), and their own propensity for trouble, they get into dubious situations selling wigs to the UDA, the IRA, and the British army.

Both McEvoy and O’Byrne deliver impressive performances as the aspiring rug merchants, but the potential for comic fireworks between them is dampened by making George a big orange marshmallow of a man, too soft to counterbalance Colm’s live-wire persona. Feisty Bronagh takes up the slack, sporting a Sheena Easton hairdo, and full of dangerous ideas about how to expand their client base.

McEvoy retained a firm grip on his original script through negotiations with some of the biggest guns in Hollywood, and his text made the transfer from page to screen virtually intact, with no apparent interference from the studio. But director Levinson’s pacing of the story is geared toward the American mainstream market, and in slowing the rapid-fire Belfast dialogue to facilitate those who have trouble with the accent, the film rarely gains the momentum the text deserves.

Baltimore native Levinson knows what’s its like to grow up in an ethnic minority in a declining seaport town, so McEvoy’s

Belfast presented no difficulty for the versatile director. And he had enough faith in the script to cast Irish actors in the lead roles, resisting the usual impulse to add established international stars to the mix to boost the profile of the movie (a sore point for Irish cinephiles, who’ve seen many a good local film ruined by Hollywood actors who poorly understood their roles).

But the director lacks faith in his audience. When a well-written fast-paced comedy with no stars and non-American accents like "The Commitments" or "The Full Monty" makes it big in this country, viewers know they can miss a joke here and there, but still have a good laugh because there’ll be another one along in a minute. The comedy shouldn’t have to wait for them to catch up. Even when dialogue is not an issue, in scenes of straightforward slapstick, Levinson’s comedic touch deserts him. For a guy who came to prominence writing gags for Mel Brooks, the scenes where Colm wrestles with some Protestant dogs for possession of a wig feel flat, tired and short on laughs.

Levinson’s only concession to star cachet is Billy Connolly, the veteran Scottish comedian who plays The Scalper. Connolly retains formidable cult status in Ireland and Britain, despite softening his act in recent years doing mediocre U.S. TV work. Sporadic sitcom appearances may have fattened his sporran, but even diehard fans of the Big Yin would have to admit that Groundskeeper Willie is currently the funniest Scotsman on the small screen. On the big screen, a stiff turn as a Scottish servant with the hots for lumpy old Queen Victoria in "Mrs Brown," and a role as a roadie trying to rejuvenate a defunct rock group in "Still Crazy" didn’t exactly remind fans of the one-man laugh riot from the shipyards of Glasgow that they used to know and love.

Connolly’s performance in "An Everlasting Piece" marks a slight return to form as The Scalper, the salesman with a monopoly on the local rug trade who loses the run of himself and gets locked up in the mental hospital where Colm works. His apocryphal bible quotes from behind bars are at least the equal of material from his heyday, but he’s wasted in a role that becomes redundant long before the movie reaches the halfway mark.

Connolly’s co-stars McEvoy and O’Byrne, both proven talents already on the Broadway stage, step up to the big screen with performances that show real star potential. They shine most, given the slow pacing, in scenes of dramatic discord as they grapple with differences that threaten to split their friendship and their business, rather than scenes of flat-out comedy. But their efforts are at best a comb-over for their director’s bald underestimation of his audience’s ability to cope with the Belfast twang. "An Everlasting Piece" never realizes the full potential of its script, and in its attempt to reach a wide U.S. demographic may well fail to please the niche market of Irish viewers who eagerly await its release, based on the good word-of-mouth that precedes it.

"An Everlasting Piece" opens in New York’s Sony Lincoln Square Theater on Dec. 25 for a limited run, and will have a wider release across the country in the New Year.

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