World Wide Motion Pictures // 2003 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 4th, 2009
The fire and passion of a man's life.
An Irishman named Enda Doyle (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange) has just received some terrible news: he only has three months left to live. While preparing for the end, Enda records a series of monologues and ramblings on videotape. When he passes away, the somewhat dysfunctional Doyle family gathers together for the first time in years. As the family prepares for the wake, memories are shared, confessions are made, laughs are had, tears are shed, and the videos are watched. While learning about the life of Enda Doyle, what will the rest of the Doyle family members learn about themselves?
If you think that plot description makes Red Roses and Petrol sound like an agonizingly familiar and dull affair, you would be correct. The film was made in 2003, wandered the film festival circuit for years, earned a very limited theatrical distribution in 2008 and is now quietly making its way to DVD. It's the sort of well-intentioned, ultra-somber, vaguely "important" film that critics are generally polite to, in the same way that people speak politely of those who have just passed away. The film bears no ill will toward anyone and does indeed make a valiant attempt at being honest and real, but the end result is unfortunately a very tedious viewing experience.
Red Roses and Petrol originated as a play by Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor. Though I haven't seen the play, if the film is by any means faithful the source material wasn't particularly strong to begin with. The movie is an assembly line of cliches, beginning with McDowell's deathbed scene (curiously unaffecting considering that we know so little about him when he dies) and continuing as the family members unleash a mundane series of revelations. One person admits their hidden bitterness, one sibling finally tells another what they think of them, and doubts that were buried for many years rise to the surface at long last. Meanwhile, a collection of mostly unfamiliar actors do their best method routine, apparently attempting to make the emotions on display more convincing by inserting awkward dirty jokes and overcooked physical gestures along the way.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that the film never seems remotely Irish. The film is set in Ireland, and the plan was originally to shoot there and cast the film with Irish actors. Then the Irish funding disappeared and the film was moved to California and cast with mostly American actors. Since most aren't particularly good as seeming authentically Irish, the movie attempts to overcompensate by becoming as thoroughly "Oirish" as possible. Alas, nothing works. Not the California-as-Ireland scenery, nor McDowell's imported clothing, nor one character singing "The Water is Wide" while high on cocaine, nor a collection of drunks in a pub singing "Danny Boy," nor the attempts to insert foreign slang, nor even one character's suggestion that Gabriel Byrne is the ultimate man can convince us that this film is Irish.
So aside from being boring, unconvincing, inauthentic, and exceptionally stage-y, is there anything at all to recommend about Red Roses and Petrol? Malcolm McDowell is pretty stellar, though he has considerably less screen time that you might expect considering that he gets top billing. Most of his appearances come via occasional snippets of rough-looking VHS footage. These scenes range from entertaining to mediocre, as McDowell occasionally seems to be stuck with the challenging task of having to improvise heartfelt and intensely personal ramblings. He may be a perfectly effective anchor for the film, but when the whole ship is sinking that doesn't much matter.
The DVD I received was a screener disc featuring sub-par technical qualities and absolutely no special features, so I can't speak to whether or not the official release will prove itself worthy in that department. However, I can say that the film is to be avoided by all but the most avid fans of McDowell's acting or O'Connor's writing. This red rose has died.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: World Wide Motion Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site