The Van

Salon Magazine: A review of the film 'The Van' directed by Stephen Frears and starring Colm Meaney and Donal O'Kelly, based on the novel by Roddy Doyle, reviewed by Charles Taylor

By Charles Taylor

Published July 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" is a raucous demonstration of why Tolstoy was wrong: It's each happy family that's happy in its own way. Hard-headed and hilarious, loaded with good-natured profanity, full of heart and devoid of sentimentality, Doyle's books are a tribute to the loving, squalling cacophony of family life. He understands the affection that can develop between generations living in close quarters, the alliances and grudges that spring up and how it's possible to love your parents or siblings even as they're driving you crazy. The setting is the working-class development Barrytown, in Dublin; the characters are the Rabbitte clan (the name is Doyle's joke on how many of them there are) and the hero who emerges over the course of the three books is its big-hearted and slightly befuddled patriarch, Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. Jimmy is one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction, a middle-aged man who professes bafflement at the world -- largely because that's what middle-aged men are supposed to do -- but who possesses a sense of curiosity and a capacity for amazement.

"The Van," the last and best of the books, focuses on Jimmy's unemployment and how he deals with his feelings of inadequacy at no longer being the family's breadwinner. He gets some of his sense of self back when he and his buddy Bimbo acquire a dilapidated van and go into the fish and chips business. Inevitably, after the initial success, things go wrong in both the business and the men's friendship. The book is a little marvel of empathetic writing. Its comic-melancholy epiphany occurs when Jimmy comes to the realization of who he is and finds out that that's what matters to his family, not the money he brings in.

The new film of "The Van" is the second shot Stephen Frears ("The Grifters," "Dangerous Liaisons") has had at "The Barrytown Trilogy." His 1993 film of the second book, "The Snapper," was a disappointment, shabby and unimaginative, but it was no disgrace. "The Van" damn near is. Frears has conceived of the story in terms that are both broad and bland -- sitcom terms. He goes for knockabout physical comedy as Jimmy (here called Larry and played, as in "The Commitments" and "The Snapper," by Colm Meaney) and Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) bash their way around inside the tight quarters of their van. There's little feeling for the self-respect this patched-together venture gives the men, how their busyness keeps them from thinking of themselves as failures.

Frears is working from a screenplay by Doyle, and although Doyle is a wonderful novelist whose gifts have deepened from book to book, he's not a screenwriter. "The Van" is the longest of his novels, and in trimming it down for the screen, he's lost most of his best material. (The story has lost its connections to the earlier installments of the trilogy.) Instead of finding a way to convey what Doyle has cut, Frears uses the compressed script to make the material simplistic. "The Van" is noisy and hardy in the worst way. The omissions that hurt the most are from the early parts of the book, with the unemployed Jimmy at loose ends struggling to hold onto his self-respect. Without that, the novel's most devastating moments -- the way Jimmy's son tells him at the dinner table that it's government relief that has put food on their table, or Jimmy's attempt to pick up a woman in an upscale pub to see if he's still attractive to the opposite sex -- lose their emotional impact.

Colm Meaney has the face of a man who, years after he's taken on the responsibilities of marriage and family, still radiates a youthful pleasure and appetite for life. The stern look he assumes when he has to discipline his kids is play acting: He knows he has to do it, but it hurts him to make himself unlovable in their eyes. It's a face you can see on a lot of older men (my father is one), and no one captures the type better than Meaney did in the previous film adaptations of Doyle's books. You get the feeling he could do even better here, but he's undermined by Frears' shallow approach. He's frequently funny when he captures the character's bluster, but Frears doesn't help him find a way to Larry's heart.

You can best see what's wrong with "The Van" in the sequence where Ireland's soccer team makes it to the quarter finals of the World Cup. In the novel, Doyle conveyed the silly and bracing ebullience the victory let loose in the characters, the way it made everyone a little freer emotionally. (The loveliest moment -- and it's vintage Doyle -- comes in the neighborhood pub during the aftermath of Ireland's victory when Jimmy Sr, crying and laughing and beside himself with emotion, embraces his oldest son and tells him he loves him. His son returns the embrace by telling his father affectionately, "You're not a bad oul' cunt yourself.") In Frears' hands, the World Cup sequence becomes nothing more than a procession of people in funny outfits making fools of themselves over a football game. It's not mean-spirited, but it's the work of a tourist. "Everybody hates a tourist," sang Pulp's Jarvis Cocker in the song "Common People," "especially one who thinks it's all such a laugh."

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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