Judge Patrick Bromley treats Ireland like it's Europe's Idaho.
In a small Irish village, one irresistible woman has all the men in town acting like playboys.
While I enjoy a good Ireland movie as much as the next guy—mostly because there's pretty much a guarantee of some terrific scenery—I'm not a fan of "Irish whimsy" in film. I'd rather not see any magical traditions. I don't enjoy eccentric villagers. Waking Ned Devine was not unpleasant, but was somewhat annoyingly aggressive in its cuteness. Too often, Ireland movies (a genre I'm rather liberally making up a label for) lapse into Irish whimsy, making everything so preciously offbeat that I have to check out of the story and rely on admiring the countryside.
Having said that, I had some definite reservations going in to the 1992 film The Playboys. Sure, it boasted a strong cast, but it takes place in Ireland—and in the 1950s, no less. Ultimately, the film resides uncomfortably in the middle between a good Ireland movie (Leprechaun) and a bad one (Leprechaun 2).
Facts of the Case
In 1957 Ireland, Tara Maguire (Robin Wright Penn, The Princess Bride, Unbreakable) has been ostracized from her village for having recently given birth to a baby boy, despite the fact that she's never been married. When the townspeople aren't filling their time by harassing Tara about the identity of the baby's father, they're busy singling her out in public (she's even blasted by the priest during Sunday mass) or blaming her for all of the town's hardships. Tara is also busy spurning the advances of the local sergeant, Hegarty (Albert Finney, Miller's Crossing, Big Fish), a former alcoholic with a seemingly unhealthy obsession with her. When a band of traveling actors known as The Playboys roll into town, they threaten to shake up its conservative traditions, and one Playboy in particular—Tom Casey (Aidan Quinn, Benny & Joon, Stolen Summer)—threatens to steal Tara's heart.
I would guess that about 10 percent of films that come out are great—if you're a film lover, they change your life for the better—and about 10 percent are awful. That bottom 10 percent consists of films that are bad in a pure way; they offend our sensibilities and generate some sort of emotional response (typically anger or frustration). This leaves 80 percent of films existing somewhere in the middle, some nearer the top and some nearer the bottom. These films can be good or bad (duh), but they don't stick in our memories the way the really great or really terrible films do. We either "like" them, or disregard them soon after. Even the best films of this group are somewhat disposable, in that we'll watch them if they come on TV but wouldn't be willing to defend them the way we do with the films we are truly passionate about. It's hard to discuss in any kind of depth what's necessarily good or bad about them—they just exist.
The Playboys falls into that middle 80 percent. It's ambitious without being very good, though it doesn't fail the way that some cosmically bad films manage. Typically, I find fault in films for being too simplistic, taking an already too-thin premise and not even bothering to explore it to its own limited potential. The Playboys, on the other hand, is that rare find—an unsuccessful film that fails not as a result of shortsightedness, but because it tries to do too much. Its message—whatever it might be—becomes confused amid multiple story lines, and its characters end up shortchanged.
Part morality play, part history lesson, part allegory, part melodrama—The Playboys is all over the map, too unfocused narratively and tonally to work as a whole. It begins confidently enough, presenting a simple story of a young seamstress creating a scandal in her town by having a child out of wedlock and refusing to name the father. Not satisfied to simply tell that story, the film then introduces the Albert Finney character who, aside from some enigmatic connection to Tara, seems to exist independently of the rest of the characters. So now we've got Tara vs. the Town, and Tara vs. the Sergeant, and the Sergeant vs. his own demons, and a little bit of the Sergeant vs. the Town. Things are getting complicated, but there's still a story in there.
It's not until the introduction of the traveling actors, The Playboys, that the film really veers off course. Now, in addition to the previously mentioned conflicts, we've got Tara fighting off the advances of Aidan Quinn's character (Tara vs. Tom Casey), plus Tom Casey vs. the Sergeant, plus The Playboys vs. the Town—that's no less than seven individual conflicts occurring simultaneously. At the same time, there are parables being drawn about the progressiveness of the actors against the religious traditionalism of the town, and love triangles being forged. It's all too much, and it's rather sloppily handled. Another film might be able to handle it (Magnolia?), but for all its ambition, this film is too limited in scope.
The actors do their best to make sense of the material. Robin Wright (now adding Penn), besides looking radiant as usual, does a fine job of creating a woman who is strong-willed and independent, but willing to let her guard down for the right someone. Her character can best be described as "plucky" (a word I've attempted to avoid until this day, and will continue to avoid from this point forward). The Irish accent she adopts is about as good as Aidan Quinn's, meaning it isn't very good. Quinn brings his traditional blue-eyed charm to the role; it's good to see him play a character this carefree, not being weighed down by grief or guilt or whatever it is he brings to most roles. Albert Finney, an actor who has been around seemingly forever but who is fairly new to me (Miller's Crossing was my big introduction), is apparently great in everything. He approaches Sergeant Hegarty with the same jowly frown that permanently resides on his face, but his performance here is more internal, free of his usual bluster. He's the gravitational center of the movie, drawing in every character and situation and taking command of the screen. It's the strength of Finney's performance, along with those of the other two leads, that nearly masks the film's flaws. Nearly.
The biggest problem I have with the film—and this may sound like nitpicking, though I assure you it isn't—is its score. When a film's score works, it's something magical; it enhances the imagery and elevates the movie experience, often unbeknownst to the viewer (the very best scores work without calling attention to themselves). When a score doesn't work, however, the results can be disastrous, as is the case with The Playboys. What begins as a minor annoyance—a heavy-handed score more at home in a made-for-TV movie than here—eventually begins to derail the entire film. It drowns the proceedings like syrup, so overly sweet and sticky that you can't taste anything else. Every possible emotion is underlined, every plot point telegraphed, every possible viewer reaction is dictated by this score—which, in the process of providing the typical Irish flavor we've come to expect (all fiddles and flutes), goes too heavy on the blarney to boot. In a film whose negatives are generally obscured in gray areas, the score stands out as a significant flaw; its badness is noteworthy.
MGM's disc is comparable to their other non-Special Edition catalog titles. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer (there is a full-frame presentation on the flipside of the disc, but I didn't bother to watch that one) looks decent, but soft—colors don't pop the way they should, and black tones feel shallow and dull. The audio presentation is standard, too, providing a fairly lifeless mix. This is not to say that neither the audio nor video presentations service the film adequately—they do—but that's pretty much the extent of it.
While you're watching it, The Playboys seems like an original work—unlike a lot of more predictable films, you're not entirely certain where it's going to go. Eventually, though, you realize that you're not sure where it's going because the film itself is unsure; it's meandering and overcrowded, with too many threads to tie together successfully. Despite the contributions of the excellent cast and the filmmakers' best efforts, The Playboys doesn't really work. Chalk it up as an interesting failure.
Though I'm not recommending the film, no harmful offense has actually been committed. I'll have to let The Playboys off with a warning: Stay out of Ireland.
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