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has been replaced by a quieter, more introspective tone, where the travails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.