Colm Meaney, the earthy Irish actor, has the puffy face of an ex-welterweight, the bulky grace of a steamroller and, beneath all his bluster, the blithe spirit of an imp. In the Nineties he's been the heart and soul of two related art-house hits called The Commitments and The Snapper, and now he's finishing the job quite nicely, thank you.
The Van, directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons), is the third book of Roddy Doyle's celebrated "Barrytown Trilogy" to be filmed, and the result is just as rewarding as its predecessors. Doyle's dark comic novels are all about the downtrodden yet buoyant residents of a barely fictional north Dublin suburb. Working-class, Catholic and tattered, Doyle's people live by their wits (which sometimes fail them), take pleasure in a pint of Guinness down at the pub and, when the stars are all aligned, eke out small victories against a hostile world. In book one, a white Irish soul band makes good in Dublin. In book two, a family survives. Throughout, everyone seeks to maintain dignity.
In The Snapper (1993), Meaney was the bewildered, good-hearted father of a pregnant teenager, trying to hold things together in the face of scandal. In The Van, Meaney may as well be that fellow's soul brother. He is Larry, a striver out of work so long that he can't provide Christmas for his kids or much satisfaction for himself. But he keeps plugging away, with dogged good humor. When he wins twenty pounds from a lottery scratch card, it's as though he's unearthed the royal jewels. When his best friend, Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly), gets sacked from his job as a baker, Larry tries to cheer him up with strong drink and small dreams.
The latter take the form of what the Irish call a "mobile chipper" and what we call a lunch wagon. But before Larry and Bimbo ever sell their first "spice burger" or bag of fries, director Stephen Frears (who also oversaw The Snapper) and writer Doyle serve up twin courses of farce and tragedy--the combination that has always suited Ireland to a tee.
The engineless van Bimbo buys with his severance pay is a filthy wreck--"looks like the inside of a leper," Larry cracks--and we know the thing will never quite get clean. The food-tasting sessions, involving wives (Ger Ryan, Caroline Rothwell) and children, are comic disasters. The road to self-respect is full of bumps.
However. Once the 1990 World Cup soccer matches get under way (Ireland is a contender), the boys have made a go of it. After each match, a boozy, frenzied throng pours out of the pub, famished. The partners aren't above kicking a few pounds of spilled potatoes back into the fryer, they're overwhelmed by the crowds, and their constant squabbles have more than a hint of Laurel and Hardy in them, right down to the visuals: O'Kelly is as gaunt as Meaney is robust. Still, "Bimbo's Burgers" is a success--until a nosy health inspector shows up and the rewards of small business begin to erode a friendship.
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Aside from the soccer-watching scenes, which reveal nationalist fever and boozy confusion in equal measure, the film's best sequence might be the one chronicling the boys' crucial night on the town. Relatively prosperous now and dressed in suits, Larry and Bimbo stumble into a clip joint, blow a wad on B-girls and wind up in an argument. They are rubes adrift in a bigger pond now, and their foolish airs are almost as touching as their newfound pride in themselves. They are imperfect, but not as imperfect as the world.
In the end, the last of Barrytown's likable survivors--writer Doyle says it's time to move on now--have to make an even tougher choice about their dim futures. Looking into Colm Meaney's broad, bemused face at that moment is at once heartbreaking and exhilarating, just as it should be.
Screenplay by Roddy Doyle, from his novel. Directed by Stephen Frears. With Colm Meaney and Donal O'Kelly.