If you consider Northern Ireland a part of Ireland proper, then An Everlasting Piece may easily be the best Irish film of the year (not that the competition was too stiff -- anyone remember The Closer You Get?). If, on the other hand, you consider the six counties to be a part of the United Kingdom, then Everlasting is close to being the best British film of the year, its only serious competition being the substantially less whimsical Scottish film Ratcatcher. It's certainly an accomplished and auspicious debut for its screenwriter and star, Barry McEvoy.
Of course, perhaps one should say "the best Irish/British-themed film of the year," because the director is actually very American: Baltimore's own Barry Levinson. And the film is being released by DreamWorks. Still, it's more McEvoy's show than Levinson's: The script is based upon his father's anecdotes about life in the wig trade, and McEvoy himself has a presence like a younger Irish Gary Sinise. The film displays a knowledge of Ireland that Levinson couldn't have had firsthand; while he may certainly have had some analogous experiences, one is treading on very sensitive ground when dealing with the Troubles in Belfast, and he's clearly had some help getting the details right. The only obvious American touch is a key reference to Kentucky Fried Chicken, which an IRA man wistfully envisions as being headquartered in a high-security compound somewhere in "Louisiana, or wherever the fuck Kentucky is."
According to an opening title, the film takes place "sometime during the 1980s" (but at least 1984, given that Stop Making Sense is playing in theaters); the stage is quickly set as the camera sweeps over rustic fields, past a mural of the Giant's Causeway and the requisite armored cars and soldiers, to the strains of the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime." We end up at a house that seems to be stranded in the middle of a large empty lot, but handwritten notes that appear onscreen quickly qualify things: That wall right behind the house is the border between Catholic and Protestant communities, and that device all around the house that looks like a giant soccer-goal net is actually there to deflect firebombs hurled over the wall.
It is in this house that we meet our protagonist, Colm (McEvoy), and his wacky family, which includes an aunt (Pauline McLynn) so burdened with Catholic prudishness that she thinks squeezing blackheads is "disgustin'...it's just so erotic," and a mother (Ruth McCabe) who wears underwear on her head so that the nicotine from her ever-present cigarette won't stain her dye job.
And Colm? He's a barber in a mental institution where virtually everyone on staff is named "Billy" and where patients have cannibalistic tastes similar to Mike Tyson's. It's a mostly Protestant place, but Colm nonetheless manages to strike up a friendship with his co-worker George (Brian F. O'Byrne), an aspiring poet; the friendship is sealed when the two manage to rhyme the words "Hades," "Mercedes," "Warren Beatty's" and "Euphrates" in casual conversation.
Soon opportunity strikes in the unlikeliest of places: A man (Billy Connolly) committed for trying literally to scalp his customers is revealed to own the only hairpiece company in Northern Ireland -- and to be extremely rich. So rich, in fact, that he reputedly has two Jacuzzis ("the wee ones, one for each foot"). He obviously isn't going anywhere for a while, so Colm and George persuade him to hand over his list of customers, and thus a business idea is born. They'll call themselves the Piece People and use their conflicting religions as a sales gimmick, because "pacifists make good money. You ever hear of a broke pacifist?"
Wacky hijinks ensue, but the comedic situations are never at the expense of the tense environment that surrounds them all. Witness the very real security checkpoint bearing the sign "Security forces regret any inconvenience or delay. Blame the terrorists," or the scene in which Colm and George must talk their way out of a gunpoint confrontation with masked IRA men on a country road, or the graphic murals representing each side in violent, almost fascistic terms, or, on a smaller scale, the vicar who insists that any wig he purchases must not be made from Catholic hair. Colm and George's friendship frequently threatens to explode, and even when one of them has the inevitable epiphany in which he realizes that the other is his equal, it's tempered with an edge.
The film suffers from a weak third act, no doubt because of McEvoy's inexperience as a writer. A tough Protestant cop introduced as an antagonist who vows to conduct the most thorough searches "since that guy did dem things to de babies in de Bible" is written off with a ludicrous (and needlessly scatological) scene shortly before the ex machina climax. Similarly, an angry deadbeat customer who supposedly killed several Catholics fails in the end to pay off in as big a way as he should. And Levinson's touch is a little uneven, which perhaps is not surprising from the man who made both the brilliantly prescient Wag the Dog and the utter dreck that was Jimmy Hollywood. But the humor in McEvoy's dialogue is wonderful, and though Levinson's camera lingers on bodily-function gags longer than it needs to (cows defecating! Hoo-hah!) and he tries to push the movie toward sentimentality at the end, McEvoy's script ultimately defies him on that score.
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