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NEW YORK – In both his own films and his collaborations with Jim Sheridan, screenwriter-turned-director Terry George has invariably been drawn to serious subject matter, covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland (In the Name of the Father, The Boxer), the corrosive aftermath of family tragedy (Reservation Road), and true stories of an IRA hunger striker (Some Mother’s Son) or heroism in the midst of genocide (Hotel Rwanda). He takes an abrupt turn toward the light in Whole Lotta Sole. The calculatedly charming crime comedy could use a tad more vitality in its central character, played by Brendan Fraser, but nonetheless packs enough pleasing elements to ensure a respectable commercial path.
Written by George with Thomas Gallagher, who hatched the elaborately plotted original story, the movie angles for the quirky buoyancy of the Roddy Doyle “Barrytown Trilogy” adaptations (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van), with the darker edges of Guy Ritchie and Martin McDonagh. And while the hostage-crisis narrative is burdened by a few too many colorful characters and a creeping case of the cutes, the plotting is sufficiently tight to pull off the combination.
A quick flash of pre-titles action in Massachusetts shows Joe Maguire (Fraser) fleeing from his wife, a screaming banshee later revealed to be the daughter of a South Boston Mafia kingpin. Fearing repercussions, Joe hides out by minding his absent cousin’s antiques shop in Belfast. His paranoia is fueled by Jimbo (Martin McCann), a shifty-looking youth who appears to be stalking him, and by a cryptic visit from local gangland boss Mad Dog Flynn (David O’Hara).
While shyly courting beautiful Ethiopian refugee Sophie (Yaya DaCosta), Joe takes a backseat for much of the story. Focus shifts to underemployed Jimbo and the inflated gambling debt he incurred after he and his wife recently had a child. He owes Mad Dog $5,000, but since the gangster’s girlfriend wants a baby and he shoots blanks, he offers to take Jimbo’s kid and call it even. (This exchange is negotiated in a torture scene lifted directly from McDonagh’s play The Lieutenant of Inishmore.)
Reasoning that seafood vendors rake it in on Fridays in Catholic towns, Jimbo holds up the fish market using an ancient hair-trigger submachine gun retrieved from an IRA stash. He’s unaware that the market, which gives the film its title, serves as a front for Mad Dog’s illegal operations. In his haste to get away with a meager cash haul, he grabs a bag with compromising contents for the gangster.
All that is merely a painstaking setup for the main action, an extended siege in which Jimbo, who is saddled with his baby while fleeing the crime scene, holes up in the antiques shop, with Joe, Sophie and a couple of surprise stowaways as hostages.
Hitting familiar notes of cranky, gruff and profane, Colm Meaney is the detective managing the crisis. That escalates when the Ministry of Defense (represented by Tom Hollander in an unbilled cameo) starts fretting about maintaining fragile peacetime equilibrium and sends in an SAS swat team. Meanwhile, Mad Dog and his flunkies dig up another piece of old IRA hardware, planning to blow away the evidence, and inside the store, Jimbo enlightens Joe about a possible connection in their pasts.
George –who won a live-action short film Oscar this year for The Shore, produced with his daughter – has a firmer handle as a director on character-driven scenes than on the jaunty action stretches. But the botched fish market robbery amusingly recalls 1960s screen capers, and the resolution pushes the requisite buttons of emotional uplift while tidily untangling the multiple plot strands. The film is visually undistinguished, but ably employs local accents, flavorful language, specific character types and quaint storefronts to define its milieu. Droll references to the Troubles serve as a humorous reminder that memories of the conflict endure.
Fraser’s performance is a little sleepy but otherwise likeable enough. Meaney and O’Hara sparkle in roles that don’t stretch their range; McCann conveys the touching vulnerability of a truly desperate and confused young man; and the lovely DaCosta brings welcome delicacy and warmth.
Leaning to the twee side, Whole Lotta Sole is not going to sway audiences expecting gangster turf to yield grit. But a packed house at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film world-premiered, seemed tickled, suggesting that it should find a niche at the undemanding end of the specialized market.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
Production companies: Menlo Park and Seamus, in association with Limelight Media, Premiere Picture, Northern Ireland Screen, Archer City Film Group, Molinare, Jeff Steen Enterprises
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Colm Meaney, Martin McCann, Yaya DaCosta, David O’Hara, Michael Legge, Conor MacNeill
Director: Terry George
Screenwriters: Thomas Gallagher, Terry George
Producers: Simon Bosanquet, Terry George, David Gorder, Jay Russell
Executive producers: David Rogers, Jason Garrett, Barrie Osbourne, Anand Tiwari, Brendan Fraser, Mark Huffam, Robert Lewis, Jeff Steen, Michael Henry, Chris Hunt
Director of photography: Des Whelan
Production designer: David Craig
Music: Foy Vance
Costume designer: Hazel Webb-Crozier
Editor: Nick Emerson
Sales: Essential Entertainment
No rating, 89 minutes
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