Intermission (2003)

One of the first rules you learn in improvisational theater is never to say no. The idea is to keep the scene’s forward momentum constant. If you say no, even as a punch-line, then you bring the scene to a sudden halt, forcing your fellow actors to compensate for the abrupt change in direction. It has a similar effect on the audience: too many abrupt transitions and sudden changes wreak havoc on their patience. To use a familiar metaphor: when your narrative suddenly switches gears, you leave viewers in the lurch.

Intermission repeatedly frustrates audience expectations. There are perhaps a dozen scenes that jar the viewer by introducing seemingly random developments. These digressions threaten to steer the film into the bleak landscape of dark comedy, but in the end, it’s just too sweet. Ugly events occur, but by the time the credits roll, virtue has been rewarded and vice has been punished. It all feels like an odd exercise in self-correcting transgression.

John Crowley’s first feature film comes after a distinguished career as a theatrical director in his native Ireland. Accordingly, the movie, written by Mark Rowe, is a mostly unvarnished tour through the mean streets of an unnamed lower-class Irish industrial town, an ensemble piece constructed with some of today’s most respected Irish actors.

Colm Meaney plays against type as an abusive, bumbling police detective with delusions of grandeur. His Jerry Lynch is a loose cannon with a fondness for boxing and Celtic music, who bases his self-image in his bullying of suspects and informants, including his chief nemesis, the brutish Lehiff (Colin Farrell). Jerry hooks up with a local documentary maker, Ben (Tomás O’Suilleabháin) who aspires to produce more than just human-interest fluff for the local news franchise. Jerry wants to be a TV star.

You can see why he’d want a way out of the decaying streets of this unnamed Irish town. No one seems well off: there’s the lower class and the slightly higher, corrupt class, but there’s not a single character who seems prosperous or even remotely satisfied with his lot. It looks and feels like one of those low-budget BBC dramas from the mid-’80s that you still see on PBS ever now and again: squalid and over-saturated. Much of the success of the film’s look can be attributed to the work of Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski.

This is the perfect stage for a series of gray and ambiguous character studies. It is unfortunate that the ambiguity of the film’s best performances (Meaney, Deirdre O’Kane) is at odds with the film’s aspirations towards pointed black humor. One conspicuous example Intermission‘s mordant comedy is the recurring plot device of the boy in the orange coat. This child, identified simply as “The Boy,” acts as a recurring force of nature, tossing literal bricks, eggs, and stones into other characters’ paths.

Narrative logic and punishment in Intermission, just as in real life, seem peevishly arbitrary. But it’s one thing to create compelling character studies, and quite another to craft a black comedy. The weaknesses in Intermission concern the script’s affection for its characters, as this undermines its darker tones. In good black comedy, you get the feeling that anything can happen, to anybody, at any time. Intermission creates this atmosphere up to a point, but it backs away, almost apologetically.

It isn’t enough merely to shock your audience in the service of black comedy, it is additionally necessary to maintain that ironic tone throughout the piece, or the resulting product will be limp and uneven. The multiple storylines and character arcs that compose the film’s structure present likeable characters in unbelievable circumstances. John (Cillian Murphy) is a decent, if unerringly dull fellow, and though the movie throws all sorts of obstacles in his way, the frequent left turns in his story are just that: momentary detours meant to provide squeamish drama before the inevitable happy resolution.

I would say more about John and Deirdre (Kelly MacDonald), since their romance sits at the ostensible center of the film, but in all honesty, they are the movie’s least interesting elements. Deirdre is slightly more compelling than John; she’s a young woman who temporarily trades up for an older man, but her dilemma never registers. More appealing is Deirdre O’Kane’s Noeleen, the older woman whose husband leaves her for Deirdre. Increasingly frustrated by his betrayals, Noeleen becomes increasingly violent; her acts of misplaced vengeance provide some of the movie’s funniest moments. She seems to have wandered into Intermission from a more gleefully wicked movie.

Crowley’s film is an intriguing beginning to what will hopefully be a long and eventful career. He has a way with actors that gives the movie focus, but that’s no more than you’d expect from someone with a strong background in theater. In an interview with IndieWire, he claims influence by Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson (particularly the densely layered Magnolia), but his grasp of narrative exigency doesn’t match theirs. Instead, Crowley’s movie doesn’t follow any specific event or relationship through to its logical conclusion. The violent feints that weave in and out of Intermission‘s plot lead us through the muggy back streets as long as they resist cloying sentiment.

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