A Movable Feast
Stephen Frears adapts Roddy Doyle's The Van.
Directed by Stephen Frears
There are small movies and there are big movies. It was ever thus. Sometimes big movies are Epics, made by Titans (Griffith, Von Stroheim, etc.), and sometimes they are large duds that reverberate mostly in the loss columns of the studio's books. Small movies can be throwaways, two-reelers, installments in forgotten series, or stix pix. But then there are those small movies that, over time, come to seem much bigger than their steroid-driven contemporaries: Think of Ozu, De Sica, Bresson. Their movies feature a few characters, a simple plot, and a circumscribed milieu, but they are small only in the way that a great sonnet is by virtue of being limited to 14 lines. Small movies become big movies through irreducibility. They do not get there by wishing themselves larger.
The Van is virtually a textbook example of a small movie. In Barrytown, North Dublin, in 1989, Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) has been laid off from the bakery job he has held since leaving school. Nearly all his friends and neighbors are unemployed, too, but he's made of more enterprising stuff. He has a plan: He will operate a snack van. He enlists his best friend, Larry (Colm Meaney); finds a grimy hulk to recondition; stocks it with nasty-looking spice burgers and sausages-on-a-stick; and parks it outside the local pub and on the edge of the beach. Things are difficult at first, then start going well, then fall apart altogether. Everyone is left sadder but wiser.
T here is, of course, an underlying metaphor. Or maybe that's going at it the wrong way around; whatever symbolism exists in this picture, it stands for Ireland. Bimbo times the debut of his van to coincide with Ireland's appearance in the World Cup semifinals, and the team's fortunes seem to predict those of the business: They win; they win again; then they are trounced. The Van is the third part of the Barrytown Trilogy, novels by Roddy Doyle as well as movies--The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker; and The Snapper, also directed by Stephen Frears. Doyle's novels are that rare thing, which can't be faked: the authentic voice of a nation at a particular time in history. They have been read and loved by more people in Ireland than ever glanced at Ulysses. They are funny, modest, humane, subtle, and show evidence of a remarkable ear.
The Van shares these qualities, if only up to a point. The dialogue (which takes a bit of getting used to for an American ear) is Doyle's, and it is just right. The actors are uniformly excellent. O'Kelly's basset eyes and jowls and air of why-me perplexity make him an ideal road-company Job; and Meaney's small, confident features, aswim in an enormous face, peg him as a man who will follow his inner light all the way over the edge of the cliff. Among the superb supporting players, one standout is Brendan O'Carroll as the local fixer, a diminutive character with a high-pitched bark, given to loud suits and bad post-glam haircuts, who suggests the touch of Damon Runyon's ghost. Frears is an interesting--often inspired, if oddly erratic--director, capable of making My Beautiful Laundrette and the underrated The Grifters on the one hand, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Mary Reilly on the other.
In outline, The Van sounds like a sort of Bicycle Thief starring Laurel and Hardy, or The Honeymooners as interpreted by Sean O'Casey. Why, then, is it never as sad or as funny as it intends to be? There are a number of reasons, but the chief villain can be named: Eric Clapton. His score, which is mostly acoustic guitar, accompanies the action relentlessly. It is militantly innocuous, and is mixed just loud enough to spread its taint onto every scene, cartoonishly inflating small climaxes, letting the air out of jokes, converting pathos into bathos. The producers may have felt that a strummed score by Mr. Guitar God would be sufficiently intimate for the picture's scale while simultaneously launching its modest bulk toward some stratosphere of universality, but they might as well have salvaged the Dmitri Tiomkin orchestrations from, say, The Old Man and the Sea, and slapped them on at random.
The score is symptomatic of a larger uncertainty at work. There are times when the movie is agreeably subtle. When Bimbo and Larry start making money, for instance, they put on their suits, take a bus into Dublin, and visit an overpriced wine bar, where they chat up a couple of women who look and behave like faintly distorted versions of their own wives. This fact is never commented upon, and so the scene preserves its sly humor. But when Bimbo begins to throw his weight around and decides to pay Larry a check instead of simply dividing the take, and Larry retaliates by joining a union, the stages of Larry's revenge, from the germ of the idea to his invoking the shop steward, are eked out laboriously, as they would be if the sequence constituted a whole episode of a sitcom. A small but potentially sharp joke is transformed into a grossly overweight allegorical blob. Other funny scenes are likewise mistimed and sad ones marred by an excess of cinematography.
What the movie might have been finds true expression in only one scene. After Bimbo and Larry find the van in a dump and succeed in fitting its tires back on, they enlist their families to push the thing over to Bimbo's house. They attract a few kids, who follow them laughing, then a bunch of jeering skinhead teen-agers apparently about to throw things. But more and more people show up, at first imperceptibly, until the van is surrounded by a throng. The threat of humiliation and even violence has become a triumphal parade. It is a small scene that attains bigness organically, without resorting to artificial means. If the makers of The Van had trusted the rest of the story and appropriately underplayed its effects, the movie would have grown in consequence. Instead, its oversized clothing flaps in the breeze.
Engineless van meets guitar-heavy soundtrack: Bimbo (O'Kelly) and Larry (Meaney) begin the group push (45 seconds):
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts.