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Tucson Weekly Fish Fry

'The Van' Stinks Hook, Line And Sinker

By Stacey Richter

AUGUST 18, 1997:  THE VAN IS the third in a trilogy of films based on novels by the Booker prize-winning author Roddy Doyle. (The earlier two were Stephen Frears' The Snapper and The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker). The talent involved in this movie is impressive: Frears directed, Doyle wrote the screenplay and Eric Clapton composed and played the music. Theoretically, The Van sounds like it would be great--and it really might be pretty good, but I have something to confess: I don't get it. For me, watching this movie was like watching sports on TV. I just don't see the appeal. I didn't really like the earlier versions of this trilogy, either, though a lot of people have told me they thought they were wonderful. When I mention I couldn't even get through Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Doyle's prize-winning novel about an Irish boyhood, people cringe as though I'd said I hated Catcher in the Rye. But I really didn't think The Van was funny, or interesting, or cinematically adventurous, despite the talent involved.

The Van tells the story of two middle-aged, unemployed Irishmen, Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) and Larry (Colm Meaney), who decide to go into business selling fish and chips out of a mobile food wagon--like the ones you can buy tacos from in South Tucson. They're both married with kids; their lives are unglamorous, their houses are messy, and their favorite pastime seems to be the time-honored double-bill of drinking and vomiting. I think these guys are supposed to be lovable losers, but I couldn't really grasp the lovable part. Maybe if I were Irish; but I'm not, and I found Bimbo and Larry to be loud, drunken, angry characters who mostly panicked and yelled, Irish versions of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. This is rather trying.

When Bimbo and Larry go into business together, their friendship begins to deteriorate--no surprise there. This movie is mostly about the tension that builds between these guys, and the conflict between making money and staying friends. Essentially, it's an art-house buddy movie. Meanwhile, the van hits the more obvious of obstacles: trouble with health inspectors, trouble with unruly customers, including those testosterone-soaked bad boys, heavy metal fans. These episodes are intended to be funny or touching, I think, but really, I don't see the humor in lobbing chunks of cod out of the back of a truck at a bicyclist. I'm sorry, I just don't.

Some of the secondary characters were more interesting; Bimbo and Larry's wives had a fullness and presence rarely devoted to secondary players with so little screen time. In fact, they seemed very much like characters plucked out of a novel. Larry's wife Maggie (Ger Ryan) has gone back to college and reads George Eliot at the kitchen table. ("Who's he?" asks Larry with annoying predictability.) But as movie characters the wives were oddly unsatisfying. Maybe it's their lack of participation in the plot that makes them seem extraneous, as though they were pasted into the picture later.

Larry's kids make some charming cameos as well: His son Larry (Ruaidrhri Conroy) won't cook burgers because he's a vegetarian, though he's decided fish and chips are acceptable. His daughter Diane (Neili Conroy) is a serious girl seized with hysterical laughter when the van accidentally hits a dog. These scenes are lovely, and have the feel of real life; perhaps this is why this series has found such fans.

Though The Van does its best to take such character-driven, extraneous side-tours, there really is a plot to it, and it's a spectacularly uncinematic one at that. Bear in mind that much of this movie takes place inside the back of a truck. It's claustrophobic, it's dark, it's greasy. The only thing less suited to the big screen would be a movie set in a bomb shelter. I get the feeling The Van is one of those stories that had difficulties making the jump from paper to screen: No one would really propose the inside of a truck as a suitable setting for a movie, but it would do fine for a novel. Maybe the best thing to do in this case is to just stay home and read the book.

The Van opens Friday, August 15, at The Loft (795-7777) cinema.


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