The whimsy falters when Brendan meets Trudy

Movie review

March 09, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Roddy Doyle's latest Dublin comedy, "When Brendan Met Trudy," poses as the story of a wild, eccentric love match but is really about a match made in limbo.

Brendan (Peter McDonald) lackadaisically instructs derisive high school students in history and literature. He lives for the movies he sees after school, from "The African Queen" to "Once Upon A Time in the West." Trudy (Flora Montgomery), a free spirit who briefly pretends to be a Montessori teacher, likes color movies that don't star Emma Thompson. Once she flirts with Brendan at a bar, they're off and stumbling.

They aren't just polar opposites - they're bipolar opposites, swinging between suspicion and euphoria. Their all-too-unlikely attraction lets Doyle poke fun at the new opulence of Irish middle-class life. Brendan's sister and brother-in-law are ostentatious suburbanites: Their car sports a bumper sticker, "Middle Class and Proud of It!" Trudy hangs out in Dublin's Bohemian zone, where a Nigerian party animal (the gifted Maynard Eziashi) turns into a political symbol when he resists deportation.

The side riffs are sneakily hilarious. In Dublin's TV news, a U.N. official who declares that he likes Ireland merits lead attention. Even Brendan boasts a moonstruck comic lyricism when he sleepwalks through his school job; the atmosphere of bored, dubious classes and self-involved pedagogues strikes a resounding chord.

But the central affair unfolds in a failed Neverland where re-creations of "Sunset Boulevard" and Godard's "Breathless" rest next to political riots. The movie is so determined to be eclectic and wacky that it makes us fear Trudy is the Mad Castrater terrorizing the city's men until we find out how she really spends her time. She's a professional thief.

Doyle is best known to movie audiences as the man who wrote the working-class comedy-dramas of "The Barrytown Trilogy" and had a hand in the movie versions: the exhilarating "The Commitments," and the ragged and erratic "The Snapper" and "The Van." His new movie suggests that Doyle can depict a refined big-screen hero only by plunging him into weird, self-conscious farce. Brendan sings Franck's "Panis Angelicus" first in his church choir, next in a bar, and ultimately in a prison - and Trudy, predictably, pronounces it "Penis Angelicus." At best, this movie tickles like mild carbonation; at worst, it dies from cute. Maybe the whimsy could have been sustained if Doyle were the director as well as the writer and co-producer. Kieron J. Walsh mounts the movie handsomely - it's fun to see Irish city scenes painted with a neon lushness. Yet he never gets the kind of rhythm going that would make an audience experience the film as a jazzy, improvisatory lark. You feel the heavy orchestration behind all the improbabilities. The title refers to "When Harry Met Sally," but to work at all the film needed to be more like "Harold and Maude" - an unashamed oddity, tuned to a peculiar wavelength.

In Doyle's marvelous short story "The Slave," the narrator explains that what drew his wife to him was his unaffected cultural enthusiasm: "I was like a big kid, and she wasn't slagging. She loved the way I listened to music. I leaned into it. I really listened. " We should see that enthusiasm drawing Brendan and Trudy together, but our hero's passion is too muted - like Gore, he keeps it in a lockbox. What could have been a joyous spree wobbles on the mere idea of joy.

`When Brendan Met Trudy'

Starring Peter McDonald and Flora Montgomery

Directed by Kieron J. Walsh

Rated Unrated, with adult language and sexuality

Released by Shooting Gallery

Running time 95 minutes

Sun score * *

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