Category: Archive

‘Ned Devine,’ RIP

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

WAKING NED DEVINE, from Fox Searchlight Pictures. Directed by Kirk Jones. Starring Ian Bannen and David Kelly.

Former advertising director Kirk Jones makes the transition from turning out vodka and appliance commercials to directing a full-length feature, with a thin comedy offering about skullduggery in rural Ireland.

“Waking Ned Devine” stars veteran character actors Ian Bannen and David Kelly as two lifelong friends, Jackie and Michael, who hatch a scheme to defraud the national lottery and get rich quick to the tune of about _7 million. The pair have been buying lottery tickets for years without success, but Jackie discovers that someone in their extraordinarily quaint village of Tullymore has hit the jackpot.

Jones, culpable for the screenplay as well as directing, would have us believe that none of the other 50-odd inhabitants of the village has access to this information. His film is set in the present, not 50 years ago. But the Ireland of satellite dishes on every rooftop, and mobile phones at every earhole hasn’t yet reached Jones’s highly fictitious hamlet; the information superhighway is still an unpaved boreen in that part of the world.

This contrivance gives Jackie and Michael a head start on figuring out who the lucky ticketholder might be, before anyone else knows that the winner is a local. Jackie and Michael cozy up to all their neighbors, with a view to solving the mystery of the winner’s identity, and ingratiating themselves for a cut of the fortune when the millions are handed over.

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The two old boys wine and dine the entire populace, but they get nowhere; the winner is keeping it quiet. Soon they find out why — the only villager who hasn’t availed of their hospitality is Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh), who hasn’t been seen for days. They visit his cottage to find that Ned has died in bed with the winning lottery ticket in his hand and a smile on his face.

The greedy old rogue Jackie sets about passing his pliable sidekick Michael off as the dead Ned, so that they can collect the money. When the rest of the village wises up to the scheme, everyone wants a cut as well. Even the local priest is roped into the plot. A rather frightening old lady sours the plan by refusing to go along with it, figuring on getting a larger sum as a reward for turning the fraudsters over to the police than she would get if the loot is divided equally among the villagers. Jones disposes of her in a ludicrous accident, and trots out a happy ending.

The film’s title character may be dead during the entire story, without a single line of dialogue, but Jones’s other minor characters are given little more in the way of vitality or memorable verbiage. The clumsy subplots about the paternity of a boy whose mother is the local hippy, and the pig farmer who can’t get a date with her because he smells bad, are clichTd to the point of embarrassment. The film would have benefited greatly if the minor stories were excised completely and Jones concentrated on his central theme of geriatric greed. But then the film would have only been an hour long, and would end up on television, where it probably belongs.

The punitive aspects of watching this comedy as it fades from lighthearted to lightheaded are commuted by the strong performances of Bannen and Kelly. Bannen plays the elderly chancer Jackie with undisguised enjoyment, as though he can’t believe how ridiculous the whole thing is. Kelly gives solid backup as his nervous, flyweight accomplice, and shows a lot of guts doing a nude scene on a motorcycle at his age. Accomplished actress Fionnuala Flanagan does her best in the role of Jackie’s wife, but the script doesn’t give her much to work with.

While the laughs are scarce, the film occasionally hits its target when the director goes for broke with ludicrous plot developments you can see coming a mile off, but will think them too stupid to really happen next. And it must be admitted that there’s a perverse appeal, in these politically correct times, in having a grotesque old woman who gets about in a handicapped vehicle, as the villain of the piece. “Waking Ned Devine” is set in Ireland almost by accident. Kirk Jones had located his original story in a Welsh village, but retrofitted it as an Irish yarn when his chances of funding the project seemed better in Dublin. This carpetbagging of the story may explain why there are more cartoonish Irish peasants in the film than you could shake a shillelagh at. And if the landscape seems a little too manicured to be Ireland’s rugged western seaboard, that’s because it was actually shot in the Isle of Man.

“Waking Ned Devine” arrives in New York with good word-of-mouth publicity from film festivals in Europe. Comparisons are made with last year’s huge indie success “The Full Monty,” but the only real overlap between the two films is the tantalizing prospect (or alarming threat, take your pick) of male nudity. If “Ned” does as well at the box office as expected, they’ll have something else in common. But Kirk Jones is highly unlikely to rack up Oscar nominations the way “Monty” director Peter Cattaneo did. If “Waking Ned Devine” wins awards here, it will be for the performances of Bannen and Kelly, showing how seasoned stage and screen veterans can turn on the charm and transcend mediocre, patronizing material.

“Waking Ned Devine” opens in New York on Nov. 21.

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