The Van is being billed as "the final chapter in the Barrytown Trilogy," Irish author Roddy Doyle's group of novels set in a fictional north Dublin suburb that also consists of The Commitments and The Snapper. That "final chapter" label, courtesy of the production notes, gives The Van the aura of something thrillingly conclusive and foreboding, as though we were going to witness loose ends neatly tied up, futures cemented, romances realized, and a big back cover slammed shut on a meaty epic. That's hardly the case here, yet in the best way possible. Like its filmic predecessors, The Van is simply boisterous good fun, another window on Irish working-class life that celebrates friendship, drinking, World Cup madness, and spice burgers...not necessarily in that order.
And like the previous film, The Snapper, this one's directed by Stephen Frears, and it stars that great actor Colm Meaney. Meaney's ostensibly playing a different character here from the beleaguered father/grandfather-to-be in The Snapper, but if they seem the same, who's arguing? Larry is another hilariously loud, charming, and befuddled family man, and at the opening of The Van we find him trying to console his best bud Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly), who has just been laid off from his bakery job. The time is 1990, and unemployment is rife in the area, as witnessed by Larry's own daily routine: sitting in the backyard, sitting at the pub, pushing the baby stroller around, and hitting golf balls (as opposed to playing golf). Larry has practically become content with his stay-at-home status, but Bimbo aches to provide for his family.
When the two come across a dilapidated "chipper" van--the kind that is parked nearby teeming hordes to sell furiously whipped-up fried fare--Bimbo gets entrepreneurial fever and decides to buy it with his severance pay and turn it into fast-food gold. Larry initially can barely contain his disgust, referring to the nauseatingly grimy heap as "the inside of a leper," but succumbs to Bimbo's spirit and becomes his partner. They toil at cleaning the thing until it's ready to sit outside their favorite watering hole and feed the masses who have been following the Irish soccer team inch closer to the World Cup final in Italy. Part of the fun of The Van is the soccer mania that tends to dictate the emotional status of nearly everybody in the movie at any given moment. As Larry shrugs: "No cooking once World Cup's started."
Bimbo's Burgers--wouldn't you try one with that name?--proves to be a rousing success, acting at the same time as a constant source of tension and of cathartic release for its owners. Part of the problem is that Larry and Bimbo are an unequal team--Larry is Bimbo's employee--and the two have differing views of how their friendship plays into the business. Bimbo can't abide Larry's hiring of his own kids without Bimbo's consent, and Larry believes he and Bimbo are really partners because they're such good friends. Of course, Larry's temper and irrationality don't help matters much, even if they do lead to the film's more uproarious moments, such as the unfortunate batter-frying and serving of an unused diaper.
Needless to say, this is a fairly cut-and-dried comedy about the perils of going into business with friends, told with immense gusto and genuine affection. Chances are it will feel to audiences like a slighter effort than The Commitments (directed by Alan Parker) and The Snapper, but the sense of community and family camaraderie that Doyle and Frears are truly after in their films are light-years from the forced goodwill of so many comedies and independent films these days. Frears is obviously so enamored of his characters (and actors) that the more mundane or routine their actions, the more they seem to glow. Nothing drives this home as much as the portrayal of marriage, particularly Larry's scenes in bed with his wife, Mary (Caroline Rothwell). No matter how drunk Larry is when he comes home, pissed and pissed off over the van, when he crawls into bed the two instantly create a zone of warmth and marital comfort. Larry can certainly act like an oversize child most of the time, but his heart is never out of step with his actions, and it gives the film's blue-collar wit a decidedly emotional shape. The guffaws seem heartier, and even the snickers come from the gut.
This has a lot to do with Meaney's enormous gifts as a comic. It was brutally unfair that he didn't get nominated for an Oscar for The Snapper, and while it probably won't happen again in 1997, you're not likely to find a funnier performance from an actor all year. He's just got a great face (a picture of him in the dictionary next to the word ruddy would say all), a fleshy canvas that can open like a pop-up book for any frustration or joy. And although Meaney's Larry can deliver a hilarious torrent of abuse, he's probably funniest when cowering from reason, which he does more than you realize. He's an Irish John Cleese, but more cuddly and with more of a glint in his eye. I defy anyone not to laugh whenever he blurts out a "Jaahy-suus!!!" and Larry's constant flirtations with hot oil are the easiest laughs to be had from a comedy in a while.
There's nothing profound in the enjoyment of a movie like The Van, but whenever that argument is used for Hollywood product, you can't help but feel it's a defensive move. The Van is, for all its gleeful lack of narrative excitement, much more richly enjoyable in the way a crazy family reunion can be when you hear about all the wacko things so-and-so did when he lost his job and bought a van, et cetera, et cetera. These are people who feel real to you, have an indisputably infectious lifeblood, and can make you laugh just by looking at you a certain way. So if The Van is the final chapter of one trilogy, when can we get the prequels?
Colm Meaney, Donal O'Kelly, Ger Ryan, Caroline Rothwell, Nelli Conroy. Written by Roddy Doyle, based on his novel. Directed by Stephen Frears. Opens Friday.
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