Van, The (United Kingdom, 1996)
Finally, the entire Barrytown Trilogy has made it to the screen. The process started back in 1991, when Alan Parker made The Commitments. It continued in '93, when Stephen Frears filmed The Snapper. Now, with the addition of 1996's The Van, also from Frears, author Roddy Doyle's entire three-book series exists in cinematic form. And the link that binds them together is actor Colm Meaney, the best thing about any of the movies. Meaney's performance is especially noteworthy in The Van, where he's one of the few things worth watching during the draggy final thirty minutes.
The Van, which is a reasonably simple story about a couple of unemployed men opening a rolling fish-and-chip shop, is a tale of two halves. The first half is an engaging, and at times lively, comedy about friendship and finding meaning in good, honest work. It's about the benefits of regaining one's self-respect, and how that affects both the individual and the family. And, best of all, the early portions of The Van boast quite a few effective comic moments that work because the characters seem real. These aren't just cardboard cut-out Irishmen -- they're a couple of likable guys who are easy to root for.
Then, somewhere around The Van's halfway point, everything starts to go wrong. The easygoing tone dissipates, and is replaced by something far less comfortable. The film loses its way. The humor becomes half-hearted and obligatory. Cliches and tediousness rise to the fore, culminating in an ending that can only be described as jaw-droppingly stupid. This is the kind of conclusion that stands out as a hard-to-swallow writer's construct. It's a sad way for a motion picture that started out with promise to crash land.
The film opens with the woebegone Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) literally crying into his beer. After twenty-five years of loyal service, he has been laid off. Now, all he has to look forward to are endless afternoons of golf (a game he hates) and watching game shows like "Where in the World?" His best mate, Larry (Colm Meaney) is an old hand at being unemployed. Even though he doesn't much like it, he hasn't worked in a long time. But, while Larry has gotten used to doing nothing all day, Bimbo can't take it, and he hatches a scheme to buy an old van to use as a fish-and-chip shop. Once he has picked out the perfect vehicle (filthy, engine-less, and dirt cheap), he invites Larry to come on board with him fifty/fifty. With Ireland's unexpectedly good performance in World Cup soccer, Bimbo believes that parking the van outside a bar where people hang out to watch the games should provide a solid customer base.
On the acting side, no one comes close to Meaney in this film. His co-star, Donal O'Kelly, is okay, but lacks the screen presence to stand toe-to-toe with him. O'Kelly's best scenes are those with his wife and kids, when there's no sign of Meaney. In supporting roles, Ger Ryan (who appeared in The Commitments) and Caroline Rothwell are solid as the wives, and Neili Conroy and Ruaidhri Conroy add a little spark as Larry's kids. Both Conroys, unlike O'Kelly, can hold their own.
Three years ago, Frears did a wonderful job with The Snapper, and, for a while, it appears he is going to repeat his success here. But, although I know what goes wrong with The Van, I'm not sure why it happens. Perhaps there just isn't enough story to sustain a full-length feature. Or maybe the episodic structure of the film wears out its welcome. Either way, the result is that watching The Van is like sitting through two completely different movies -- one is a great deal of fun and the other isn't worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, unless you walk out, you have to accept the latter to get the former.
Van, The (United Kingdom, 1996)
Cast: Colm Meaney, Donal O'Kelly, Ger Ryan, Caroline Rothwell, Brendan O'Carroll, Stuart Dunne, Jack Lynch, Neili Conroy, Ruaidhri Conroy
Screenplay: Roddy Doyle based on his novel
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton
Music: Eric Clapton and Richard Hartley
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
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