Have you ever tasted Guinness?” a character in a wheelchair asks in an early scene from Intermission, an ensemble dramedy starring a big chunk of Ireland’s best actors. He thinks you haven’t; he says that the taste of the Irish answer to water is heightened by his paralysis, which sharpens his other senses. Each pint is a revolutionary experience that others can’t appreciate.
Unfortunately, Intermission isn’t nearly as unique or exquisite. Pretty much everything that’s done and said in director John Crowley’s picture feels lifted from other films in the A-Bunch-of-Apparent-Strangers-Actually-Have-Connections genre (or Six Degrees of Robert Altman, if you prefer). Like Guinness, ensemble movies are a macrobrew these days, popping up all around the world. There hasn’t been a great one for a few years now, and this one seems almost completely bereft of purpose.
Crowley and producer Neil Jordan are shooting for something between Go and Love Actually, only with a few older characters and a heavy dose of shock-value violence, à la Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Though he throws in all the requisite twists and delayed synchronizations, Crowley can’t pull it all together into anything resembling a movie. It’s all sketches, and most are as unappetizing as warm beer.
Most of the violence emanates from Colin Farrell’s character, a thug who sucker-punches two women and shoots a guy before he’s done. Farrell is clearly having a wonderful time in a role that allows him to embrace his inner wanker—and doesn’t require him to shave, bathe or disguise his Irish accent. He’s charismatic, but he looks bored wandering through a criminal plot and a rivalry with an equally one-note police detective (Colm Meaney, who has a ham where his head should be) who’s being followed by a TV documentarian for absolutely no reason.
The rest of the characters swim around each other in a tepid bath of sudsy misadventures. There’s John (Cillian Murphy), who regrets breaking up with his girlfriend Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald), who’s taken up with a bank executive (Michael McElhatton) whose wife (Deirdre O’Kane) regains control of her life by banging a younger man (David Wilmot) who happens to be John’s best friend and co-worker. Another plot line connects a bus driver (Brian F. O’Byrne) with two of his passengers—the mother and sister (Shirley Henderson) of Deirdre—and the requisite ill-advised criminal scheme that’s supposed to tie everything together.
Crowley is aiming for a mosaic of contemporary Irish life, but there are really just a few shards of a great ensemble drama, and they don’t stand a chance against the plodding sameness of everything else. Sadly, the film’s single best shard might be a good running gag involving brown sauce, the catchall condiment beloved in western Europe. But nearly all the details in Intermission are random and unsurprising, as if Crowley opened the newspaper on a Thursday and wrote a vignette about every story in the CityBeat section: a bus crash, a kid throwing rocks through windshields, a woman with a mustache, a bunch of middle-age singles dancing in a smoky pub.
As in many ensemble films, we don’t see enough of any single character to develop empathy for anybody; the performances are all bloated cameos, with a bunch of good actors limited to a few plot-driven scenes. Most disappointing of all, there’s not much uniquely Irish about it, other than Meaney’s character’s twice-mentioned interest in Celtic mysticism. Cultural observations on the order of Trainspotting’s “It’s shite being Scottish” stuff are usually fascinating to us foreigners, but 95 percent of Crowley’s screenplay could be shot in Sandy.
If Intermission had been released in 1994, it would have been ahead of its time, a beloved Sundance hit—but perhaps Crowley spent the last decade drinking Guinness, perhaps admiring its taste. We expect more from ensemble films now. Just being Irish doesn’t cut it.
INTERMISSION, *.5 , Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Kelly Macdonald, Rated R