The Van

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Frears

REVIEWED: 09-15-97

Novelist Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" arrived on film in 1991 with Alan Parker's The Commitments, a rousing crowd-pleaser with a toe-tapping soundtrack. When Stephen Frears took the helm of The Snapper in 1993, the box-office mentality vanished, replaced by a straightforward intimacy that found profane laughter among the Irish working class. The tone of this second film continues in The Van, in which Frears again interprets Doyle's story of perverse, irrational joy in a Dublin neighborhood as a series of small, telling scenes rather than as a high-concept crisis.

The van of the title is a broken-down food wagon at the center of a money-making scheme concocted by Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) and his friend Larry (Colm Meaney). Both men have just spent a rough Christmas on unemployment, and as Ireland advances in the World Cup they foresee big profits selling fish and chips outside the pub in the interval. But Bimbo's desire to run a trim business clashes with Larry's devil-may-care, jester persona.

It's worth seeing The Van just for laughs, even if on the whole it's less hilarious than The Snapper. That film's outrageous humor has been replaced by a quieter, more introspective tone, where the travails of friendship are more important than slapstick. Frears has a fearless, unadorned style that meshes perfectly with his blue-collar material. He places his camera at eye level and surrounds it with the gaudy trappings of pub life and football fandom. The characters are so comfortable in this world, so much a part of its cheap utilitarian veneer, that the movie has a slice-of-life tone even as it tells a coherent story. We feel as if we're peeking at a real world, and we love its inhabitants for letting us in to see their worst moments as well as their best.

In retrospect, The Commitments, despite being far and away the most popular of the three movies, is an aberration. It immerses us in the glamour of performance without putting that thrilling but transient world in perspective. Frears has returned Doyle's characters to their real environment, and he finds just as much entertainment there, outside the spotlight, inside the hearts of confused, hopeful, living men.

--Donna Bowman

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The Van
The Van

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