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Lotto Fun

Waking Ned Devine comes alive with artful codgers

You get the feeling filmmaker Kirk Jones knew which way the wind was blowing when he sat down to write Waking Ned Devine, which he also directed. Like the blue-chip 1997 British hit The Full Monty, Jones's Ned Devine deals with money-making schemes and naked men. In fact, Ned Devine goes Monty one better and gives us a pecker shot, albeit a discreet one of an elderly fellow. We get our peek as the naked old man is jumping on his motorcycle to -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The senior citizen is Michael (David Kelly), one of two lively codgers living in the Irish hamlet of Tulaigh Morh. He and his pal Jackie (Ian Bannen) have figured out that one of the 52 "souls" in their village is the winner of the most recent Lotto. Before the winner's name is released to the general public, Michael and Jackie hope to identify the winner and ingratiate themselves to the newly rich man. With the help of Jackie's wife (Fionnula Flanagan), they pull some amusing stunts in their quest and spend quite a few pounds buying rounds at the pub and preparing chicken dinners for all the Lotto players in town. It's at the chicken dinner that the trio strikes pay dirt. There's one leg left over from the carefully counted-out chicken pieces. And there's one name on the guest list that hasn't been checked off yet: Ned Devine. In one of the film's funniest moments, Jackie goes out into a howling storm to deliver the bit of chicken to his new best friend, Ned, only to discover the shocking reason that the Lotto winner hadn't answered their invitation to dinner.

I won't spoil this for you, but I sure would like to. This scene in which the Lotto winner's identity and fate are revealed is so perfectly conceived that you want to linger over its details and talk about its artful execution. Let me just say that at this point what was an antic comedy turns a bit darker (not too dark, to be sure). After Michael and Jackie have found Ned Devine, they have quite a choice to make, and the path they choose defines and completes their characters and that of their neighbors as well. Let's just say that soon everybody in the hamlet is in on the pair's get-rich-quick scheme. Everybody, that is, except for the town witch (Eileen Dromey).

The Ned Devine scene is the film's high point, and it comes only a third of the way into the story. The last two-thirds of the tale is a bit hit-and-miss, not quite matching the steady and artful building of tension that leads up to the solving of the who-won-the-Lotto mystery. But the hits are still solid, largely because of the inspired playing of the two leads by Bannen and Kelly, a sort of Irish Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Imagine Andy Taylor as an ethically flexible opportunist and Barney Fife as ready to be led astray, and you have the two of them -- especially if you can picture a naked Fife barreling along on a motorcycle.

That nude cycling scene demonstrates the film's strengths and weaknesses. It is quite shameless. There is no crying need for the old guy to show us his Monty, so the fact that he does feels like it's aimed toward the cheap seats. On the other hand, it is very funny, so maybe we're all sitting in the cheap seats these days, and there's no need to fret.

There are a few missteps in the plot's unfolding. A handful of the villagers don't seem worth the trouble of getting to know. I'm thinking particularly about the young priest (Dermot Kerrigan) who is new to the village. You expect him to be there to call the townsfolk to account for the scam they're pulling, but the movie provides no such thing, nor any other justification for his character. And making a crippled woman the villain of the piece is a bit jarring, at least for the highly sensitive folk on our side of the Atlantic.

All in all, Waking Ned Devine is quite a bit of fun. It's a true pleasure to see the old boys' guile win out over the Lotto director's youthful naivete, and to see the codgers evolve from con men into something deeper. In the old men's evolution, and in that of the villagers', Waking Ned Devine recalls the 1983 gem, Local Hero. Even though this film doesn't reach that one's levels of class and artistry -- even though it is, in short, a shameless, blarney-besotted crowd pleaser -- it does hit its target.

Waking Ned Devine.
Rated PG.
Written and directed by Kirk Jones. With David Kelly, Ian Bannen, Eileen Dromey and Fionnula Flanagan.

 
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