Friday March 31, 2000

     Production notes for Mark Hanlon's "Buddy Boy" describe it as "a dark and twisted exploration of faith, alienation and madness"--and is it ever! Aidan Gillen's Francis is an introverted stutterer who lives in an extravagantly decrepit inner-city apartment with his disabled stepmother, Sal (Susan Tyrrell), a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, cackling old harpy in a fright wig who's forever warning Francis of God's wrath hailing down upon him. Francis' priest, noting his infrequent confessions, reminds him that "we are all soldiers in the struggle for redeeming ourselves."
     Devout in his faith, tormented by sexual longings, Francis cringes his way through life, processing photos at a local sundries shop and secretly spying on the beautiful young woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who lives in a fine old apartment building across the street. One day he rescues her from muggers, and his life begins to change. Grateful to him, she extends her friendship and in time they become lovers. He is as perplexed as we are that she should be attracted to so clenched a man.
     Were not Francis so damaged maybe Seigner's Gloria could liberate him with her love. Instead, the passion she evokes in him unleashes what seem clearly to be paranoid delusions. Meanwhile, Francis realizes that a pretty little girl in a photo he processed is a kidnap victim the police are seeking--and that the lazy plumber (Mark Boone Jr.) who's supposed to be fixing a bathtub pipe has virtually moved in, spending the day boozing and joking with Sal.
     All these developments, especially the unexpected love of Gloria, are more than a man as withdrawn as Francis can handle. He has real trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and all his inner conflicts are eroding his faith. It's as if his world is crumbling around him.
     In his feature debut Hanlon has put a lot on his plate, but his psychological insights are quite compelling: Francis may be going crazy, but we certainly can understand why. But "Buddy Boy" is an example of the right idea expressed in the wrong key. Instead of going for a gritty, low-key approach that might be all the more chilling as a result, Hanlon indulges in bursts of theatricality so intense you can all but see the proscenium looming overhead. Gillen and Tyrrell are directed to act up a storm, an approach that might in fact play well on the stage but seems mainly artificial on the screen. (Seigner, who's also in "The Ninth Gate," fares better, but it's impossible to understand how Francis could win and hold the love of so beautiful and urbane a woman.) The grandiose quality of the film is heightened by a slow pace, forays into the surreal and an ominous Graeme Revell score.
     Hanlon dives into his picture so deeply he takes himself as seriously as his material. A more detached, underplayed tack might have made a crucial difference. You respect Hanlon's passion and fervor and his willingness to come to grips with the question of faith amid a tangle of Catholic guilt, sexual frustration and loneliness. But less Grand Guignol and more Robert Bresson would be welcome.


Buddy Boy, 2000. R, for sexuality, violence, language and some drug use. An Independent Pictures presentation. Writer-director Mark Hanlon. Producer Cary Woods. Executive producer Elliot Lewis Rosenblatt. Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski. Editor Hughes Winborne. Music Graeme Revell. Production designer Robert Morris. Set decorator Alice Baker. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Aidan Gillen as Francis. Emmanuelle Seigner as Gloria. Susan Tyrrell as Sal. Mark Boone Jr. as Vic.