After a promising prologue, Waking Ned Devine quickly devolves into a slight, sleep-inducing “comedy” that plods so deliberately from gag to alleged gag that nothing comes as a surprise. Due largely to the efforts of a journeyman group of character actors, it all goes down very smoothly. But at the end of those 91 minutes, when I realized that the music was swelling, the vista was sweeping, and the credits about to scroll, I was afflicted with a bad case of “and then what happened?”
I know that critics aren’t supposed to bother themselves with the content of a film’s marketing campaign, but doesn’t it say something that U.S. distributor Fox Searchlight was able to boil this entire film down to a two-minute trailer, leaving out absolutely nothing of any importance? Here’s the story: one of the inhabitants of a tiny Irish coastal village is a new millionaire after buying a lucky ticket in the national lottery. When a pair of adorable grayhairs (Ian Bannen and David Kelly) begin investigating to figure out which of their friends they should now be brown-nosing, they realize that the lucky stiff is actually the acutely aged Ned Devine, who perished of a heart attack upon learning of his good fortune. Our protagonists decide first that they should collect his winnings for themselves. Out of necessity, they hatch a plan to split the millions among the 50-odd residents of the village. And that’s it.
Oh, sure. The film has a (tedious) romantic subplot involving a pig farmer. There’s a (mildly) gruesome bit with a corpse. And there’s a sequence involving a funeral (Ned Devine was, of course, a saint of a man) that makes the film’s best overture toward character development. But it all comes to naught. Even after going to some length to set up a conflict with one particularly stubborn villager, the film resolves the dilemma abruptly and outrageously, but with no sense of wit or comic timing. And since I didn’t find the film very funny, maybe I took it way too seriously — call me a fussbudget, but I kept waiting for some indication, any indication, that the unbridled greed with which these old farts set out to defraud the national lottery may not, necessarily, be a virtuous human impulse.
The comparisons to The Full Monty, the British import that became an unlikely Oscar contender last year, are unearned. The Full Monty may have been as calculatedly inoffensive as Waking Ned Devine, but at least it had a mildly interesting take on class, gender, and sexuality. Ned Devine, on the other hand, is an uninteresting, artifically sweetened porridge of cliche and condescension. It takes no risks, figuring that, say, “wrinkled old man rides motorcycle naked” is automatically a killer gag and counting on the audience to agree.
If you found this on PBS in the middle of the night, it might be an agreeable way to spend an hour or so. But there’s no point in going out to the movies for what resembles, basically, a Monty Python sketch that’s been sapped of its chaotic charm by Merchant and Ivory. Who needs that?
Written and directed by Kirk Jones
Cinematography by Henry Braham
Edited by Alan Strachan
Original music by Shaun Davey
Starring Ian Bannen and David Kelly
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1