The shamrock and blarney are thick on the ground in “Waking Ned Devine,” a warmly observed comedy of manners centered on a tiny Irish village that wins the national lottery. Strongly steeped in the tradition of Ealing regional comedies, though considerably more thinly plotted, this Fox Searchlight pickup from the Cannes market is a genial, feel-good item that should prove a moderate success in territories that respond to folksy Irish humor.
Shooting in widescreen, first-time writer-director Kirk Jones, who comes from commercials, gets the movie off to a pacey start, zooming in from outer space to the sleepy burg of Tully More (pop. 52), where two crafty old-timers, Jackie (Ian Bannen) and Michael (David Kelly), read in the paper that one of their fellow villagers has secretly hit the lotto jackpot. Sniffing around for any signs of sudden wealth among their friends, Jackie finally stumbles on the truth: The winner was Ned Devine. The only problem, as Jackie discovers when he visits the oldster’s remote cottage, is that Ned is dead — from shock at the news, the winning ticket still in his hand.
His chances of wheedling some green out of Ned now zero, Jackie hits on a far more devious scheme: Michael will pose as Ned and they’ll split the proceeds, which Jackie reckons at about $:500,000. Only when the lotto man (Brendan F. Dempsey) arrives from Dublin to check out the winner’s credentials — one of the pic’s funniest sequences, with a buck-naked Michael racing on a motorbike to Ned’s cottage to assume his I.D. — do the two friends hear the big news: The winnings are no less than $:6,894,620.
Just when they think they’ve pulled off the scam of their lives, the lotto man announces he still needs to make a couple of further checks on Ned’s identity, sparking a far more elaborate charade that fuels the movie’s second half.
Though little has changed since Ealing days in the pic’s portrayal of rural Irish as a bunch of charming numbskulls, it’s done with considerable charm rather than condescension. Bannen and the gawky Kelly, whose screen chemistry is vital to the film’s success, make a delightful pair of stumbling shysters, and Jones’ script weaves a sizable tapestry of other characters to flesh out the village. (In another nod to the Ealing tradition, group rather than individual effort is shown to be necessary in the end.)
Though it’s Bannen and Kelly’s show, Fionnula Flanagan provides solid contrast as Jackie’s cool, grounded wife; James Nesbitt and Susan Lynch are fine as a pair of ill-matched young lovers; and, in the movie’s most out-there character, Eileen Dromey has a ball as a black-hearted witch in a wheelchair.
Though the pic throws up several twists as it progresses, at heart it is simply structured, relying on character studies rather than corkscrew plotting. As such, it’s not laugh-out-loud material but time spent with a group of oddballs for whom normalcy is just one option in life. Given the amount of gab and paucity of real action, Jones paces the movie well, with little slack and a blackly comic finale that wraps the yarn in satisfying style.
Tech credits are fine, with Shaun Davey’s Irish-flecked music score fitting the tone; however, color on print caught showed considerable red bias. Ironically, the movie was actually shot (for tax-break reasons) on the Isle of Man, not in Eire, though only a native would notice.