Friday May 30, 1997
The makers of "The Van" would have been wiser not to point out that it is the concluding installment in writer Roddy Doyle's Barrytown trilogy that began with "The Commitments" (1991), that irresistible tale of young Dubliners forming a '60s-style soul music group, and "The Snapper" (1993), in which the wonderful Colm Meaney plays a working-class father confronted with a pregnant teenage daughter who refuses to name the father of her child.
Compared to that meaty fare, "The Van" is pretty slim pickings--not unlike the grub that two out-of-work guys (Meaney and Donal O'Kelly) serve from their food mobile in their fictional Dublin rowhouse suburb of Barrytown. So thin is this film that it's surprising to discover that the 1990 novel that Doyle adapted to the screen himself was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. What's further surprising is that Doyle and first-rate director Stephen Frears, who also directed "The Snapper," weren't able to make more of the material.
O'Kelly's Bimbo has just been laid off his 25-year bakery job while his best friend Larry (Meaney) hasn't worked in years. When one of their barroom pals directs them to the most derelict food van you ever saw, Bimbo risks his modest severance check to rehabilitate the van and hire Larry to work with him. They are a success so instant as to needlessly defy credibility, but the grind of work begins to strain Bimbo and Larry's friendship.
"The Van" celebrates male bonding--carried to extremes--without providing much depth or dimension. The first hour or so rambles about with Bimbo and Larry and their pals putting away formidable quantities of ale while their wives (Ger Ryan, Caroline Rothwell) are presented as all-understanding, all-forgiving paragons clearly smarter than their spouses but too self-effacing to let them know it. The effect is to remind us of how many screen hours we've spent with blue-collar British Isles guys in pubs and witnessed their humiliating plight of long-term unemployment.
"The Van" gathers some steam as the free-spirited Larry begins to chafe under the workload and the fact that he's Bimbo's employee and not his partner. However, the changes in Larry seem contrived for the purposes of plot resolution rather than growing out of his character. Like Bimbo, we wonder why Larry isn't profoundly grateful for the chance for gainful employment at a time and place when, it's implied, he's long ago given up any hope of finding a job.
In the absence of strong characterization, the burly, ever-endearing Meaney seems too often to be asked only to show off in displays of antic behavior not all that inspired and therefore not all that funny. In the far more understated role of Bimbo, O'Kelly registers more effectively.
"The Van" overflows with affectionate high spirits, but it doesn't travel nearly as well as "The Commitments" or "The Snapper" did.
The Van, 1997. R, for strong language. A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation in association with BBC Films. Director Stephen Frears. Producer Lynda Myles. Executive producer Mark Shivas. Screenplay by Roddy Doyle; from his novel. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor Mick Audsley. Music Eric Clapton and Richard Hartley. Production designer Mark Geraghty. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Colm Meaney as Larry. Donal O'Kelly as Bimbo. Ger Ryan as Maggie. Caroline Rothwell as Mary.