The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Black Irish was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Now Playing on Starz Cinema
I have long suspected that the only reason independent American films about unhappy, working-class families are set in places like Long Island, South Boston, and the Southside of Chicago is so they can attract actors who really want to do an accent, but can’t pull off playing a Brit. Black Irish is just more evidence to confirm my suspicions.
It would be an understatement to say that the McCoy family is a miserable bunch. Patriarch Desmond (Brendan Gleeson) is unemployed and — in the best clichéd Irish-American tradition — a functioning alcoholic. His wife, Margaret (Melissa Leo), no longer loves him, only staying with him out of a misguided belief that being married is better for the children. And oh, what a stereotypical brood they have. Terry (Tom Guiry) is the oldest. He is a teenaged thug who always seems to be one screw-up away from going to prison for most of his adult life. Kathleen (Emily VanCamp) is the middle child. She is pregnant and in no hurry to get married, making her an embarrassment to her righteous Catholic mother. Cole (Michael Angarano) is the youngest. He’s the “good” child who never gets in trouble, is a pitching phenom, and is a whiz kid at his Catholic school, where he is on the fast-track to the seminary.
Most of the film follows Cole as he leaves Catholic school, discovers the horrors of attending public school with his borderline psychotic brother, gets his first job, goes through the humiliations of dating, and proves himself on the baseball field. All the while, he tries to connect with his distant father and deal with the fact that he no longer is interested in the Priesthood. This is a lot to ask of a great actor, let alone one who is only as adequate as Angarano.
As if the plot was not busy enough with Cole’s myriad coming-of-age problems, writer-director Brad Gann piles on subplots about Kathleen’s pregnancy and a terminal cancer diagnosis for one of the family members. All of these plot threads are introduced by the middle of the second act, turning the film into a lumbering monster of overwrought melodrama. This is too bad, because, with some trimming back of a few of the more extraneous plotlines, Black Irish could have been a decent, if unexceptional indie-film.
The cast does what they can to save the film from Gann’s overly ambitious plot. Angarano, while overmatched by the material and most of the cast, isn’t bad. He remains likable even as he goes overboard on the “Bawston” accent. Gleeson is reliable, as usual. While his character is verbally abusive when drunk or angry, he tempers this with the attitude of a man who can step back and see the humor in the absurdity of the way everyone around him behaves. I’m sure this was not intended, but in a way, he plays Desmond as the audience surrogate, taking in the drama of the proceedings and seeing it for the overblown mess that it actually is. Guiry does his best impression of Matt Damon from Good Will Hunting, which is not all that good. VanCamp is lovely but vacant as the shamed sister. Leo is given next to nothing to play, but at least she sports a flawless Irish accent.
And that is the problem with the movie in a nutshell: so much time was spent on accents, finding the perfect locations, and lighting everything moodily, yet apparently no time was spent trying to come up with a story that didn’t hit one clichéd plot point after another. By the forty-minute mark, I knew exactly how the film was going to play out to the end. With the exception of one scene (Cole’s truly funny and terrible first date), there was nothing surprising or interesting about this film.
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