"Waking Ned Devine" so begs to be liked that only a churl would find fault with it.
Well, this churl can't help it.
This comedy, set in the tiny (and fictional) Irish coastal town of Tully More, brings quaint to a new level with its cast of twinkly eccentrics, cute story and surfeit of contrived humor. But unlike such truly lovable movies as "Local Hero" and "The Full Monty," to which this film will no doubt be compared, "Waking Ned Devine" leans on tired set pieces and unearned laughs, rather than originality and an emotionally engaging story, for its appeal. The result is a comedy that comes off as either forced or tepid, despite a cast of winning players.
Ian Bannen plays Jackie O'Shea, who along with most of his 51 fellow citizens of Tully More plays the Irish national lottery every week. "Waking Ned Devine" opens when one of those players actually wins. In an attempt to share the wealth, Jackie enlists best friend Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly) to help him ferret out the winner. Is it Pig Finn (James Nesbitt), the true-blue, if olfactorily challenged, pig farmer who pines for the wildly beautiful Maggie (Susan Lynch)? Is it the town Lothario, Pat Mulligan (Fintan McKeown)? Is it town witch Lizzy Quinn (Kitty Fitzgerald), who tools around Tully More on a motorized wheelchair that she drives like Margaret Hamilton on her bike? Is it Jackie himself?
The mystery is eventually solved, precipitating a visit from a sneezy lottery representative (Larry Randall) and a town-wide scheme that will bring the citizens of Tully More together in a show of brave, if greedy, solidarity and reveal a long-held secret.
By far the best thing about "Waking Ned Devine" is the showcase it provides for rarely seen talents, especially Bannen and Kelly -- both well-known on the Irish stage -- and Fionnula Flanagan, who plays Jackie's wife, Annie. These three actors, all of a certain age, do their best to play down the cutesier elements of writer-director Kirk Jones' script, which at one point calls for the wizened Kelly to ride a motorcycle wearing nothing but a pair of wingtips and an oversized helmet.
Whether you find this hilarious or cloying depends on how much quaint you take in your comedy. And whether you find the antics of Tully More adorable or venal depends on your moral compass working even in a fetchingly faraway Irish town (before you book that flight to Dublin, be advised that "Waking Ned Devine" was filmed on the Isle of Man).
At a time when comedy has been colonized by the teen-age sensibilities of "There's Something About Mary" and "The Waterboy," the mature stars of "Waking Ned Devine," its lack of coarse language and its cast full of gorgeously imperfect non-stars is a tonic. But "Waking Ned Devine" is so strenuously ingratiating that it will make most film-goers, and certainly the self-respecting churls among them, feel as if they got up on the wrong side of the bed.
'Waking Ned Devine'
Starring Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan
Directed by Kirk Jones
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rated PG (nudity, language and thematic elements)
Running time 91 minutes
Sun score **
Pub Date: 12/11/98