"When Brendan Met Trudy"

You could call this slight Irish romance refreshing -- but not necessarily in a good way.

Published March 9, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

With the exception of Alan Parker's film of "The Commitments," nearly all the screen adaptations of Roddy Doyle's work have been unaccountably broad. Stephen Frears' shoddy films of "The Snapper" and "The Van" played as if the director believed he were making an Irish sitcom. Frears didn't catch any of the intimacy of Doyle's books, the fine line between family squabbling and loyalty.

Kieron J. Walsh's film of Doyle's screenplay "When Brendan Met Trudy" isn't as dismal as Frears' films. Parts of it are rather amusing. But it still seems meant to be a lot funnier than it is. It's a movie almost doomed to be called "refreshing," in the way that the word is used to excuse the game but amateurish presentation of a quirky premise.

Brendan (Peter McDonald) passes the time as a Dublin schoolteacher (as Doyle did), though it's a tossup as to whether he or his students are less interested in what happens in the classroom. Some of his evenings are spent in rehearsals with his church choir but his real affinity is with the movies. He's the sort of guy who can't help nearly botching his chances with a girl by launching into a critical discourse on what he and his date have just seen on their way out of the theater. His idea of a Christmas present for his mother is "Jean-Luc Godard: A Life." He doesn't really have a life outside the movies, and when he meets up with Trudy (Flora Montgomery) in a pub his shyness (and probably his peaches-and-cream complexion) is like a piece of dangling fruit -- too irresistible for her not to take a bite.

"When Brendan Met Trudy" plants itself squarely in the movie tradition of pictures about stiff, strait-laced young men shocked or pushed or titillated out of their dull lives by kooky young women. From "Bringing Up Baby" to "Something Wild" and beyond, it's an honorable tradition. But there's not much to warm up to in McDonald's Brendan. McDonald, who played the young ex-con assigned to a job with an older hood (Brendan Gleeson) in Paddy Breathnach's wonderful and almost unseen "I Went Down," is a talented young actor. His fumblings and hesitancies and priggishness here are well-nigh faultless. But there's some crucial spark missing; McDonald's Brendan clings to routine in some way that keeps the character from taking flight.

Montgomery has no such problem. Everything her Trudy does, from talking to making love, she goes at like a racehorse just released from the starting gate. She's nothing but appetite and you know exactly why Brendan falls for her. Montgomery may be too much, too on, but the movie needs her carnal energy -- it would lapse into tweeness without her.

The picture has some moderate charm but it never finds a tone or a style to carry it through. Some of the funniest bits are when the movie veers into absurdist gags, like a movie marquee advertising "The Usual Shite" or a TV newscaster's report that's a slashing parody of Irish boosterism and the Irish need to claim any bit of glory it can. (It's even funnier when one character's address turns out to be "Seamus Heaney Way.") But the way those bits break the fourth wall violates the comic naturalism Walsh establishes elsewhere.

And in the end he undervalues the movie's one real asset: Montgomery. You can point to all sorts of screwball comedies "When Brendan Met Trudy" tries to emulate but in the end it reminded me of nothing so much as the 1940 "Remember the Night" starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, a strange, unsatisfying blend of screwball romance and melodrama that -- maybe because it nags at you -- sticks in the mind more than some successful pictures of the era. "When Brendan Met Trudy" isn't in the flawed class of that movie (which was written by Preston Sturges), and Flora Montgomery is certainly no Barbara Stanwyck (no one ever will be). But like Stanwyck in that film, Montgomery creates a character with more life than anything around her and, it appears, too much life for the filmmakers. What's the point of making your heroine a sexy, life-force kook if all you can come up with for her is a prosaic fate that makes her submit to the forces she's happily flouted through the rest of the picture?

By Charles Taylor

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

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