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The kitchen sink and the favela: 'White Irish Drinkers' and 'Fast Five'

Geoffrey Wigdor and Nick Thurston in "White Irish Drinkers."
Screen Media Films
Geoffrey Wigdor and Nick Thurston in "White Irish Drinkers."

Titling a film "White Irish Drinkers" is catnip to people like me. I am, after all, likewise white, Irish, and a drinker, and Irish-Americans have a history of being fascinated with themselves. And why wouldn't we be? Have you seen how interesting we are?

The film title is a bit of a misnomer, though. Although there are white people in the film, and they are ostensibly Irish-American, and they do drink, on occasion, none of that is really the subject of the movie. Writer and director John Gray instead tells a story that is a bit like something you might get from English writers, such as John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney — tales of angry young working-class men and women trapped by their circumstances and their families, getting into fistfights near their kitchen sink.

Gray's tale has transplanted this sort of story from industrial rural England to Brooklyn, but it's nonetheless full of angry young men and is set around the kitchen sink, where two brothers, played by Nick Thurston and Geoffrey Wigdor, prepare to go their separate ways. The former locks himself in the basement, obsessively watercoloring street scenes; everyone who sees these painting gasps and clutches their hearts, although the paintings seemed to me to have been executed with the skill and imagination of someone who had just graduated their very first "Painting: Learning to See" course. The other brother is a hoodlum, of sorts. He likes to slap people and commits infrequent crimes, which he seems to always get caught doing. He's also a punching bag for their alcoholic father, played with sleepy eyes and a somnambulist's mutter by Stephen Lang.

Lang is very, very good is this film; one presumes he is familiar with Osborne. There's not an unnatural moment from him, and he carries himself with the real menace of somebody for whom violence is always the first resort, the result of generations of hereditary abuse. Alas, the rest of the film doesn't carry the same gravitas. Although set in the '70s, it has the feel of those '80s movies that tried to ape the feel of indie films, but were really star vehicles for up-and-coming Brat Packers — "St. Elmo's Fire" for instance, or "Wild Horses." You may not have seen many of these, as it's not a genre that really caught on. They focused around their main actors frowning a lot and taking off their clothes in bids for acting respectability, but the whole story was art directed within an inch of it's life. Watching them was a bit like the experience of reading a Land's End catalog and noticing all the models are crying.

Thanks to Lang and Karen Allen, who plays his wife with an unexpectedly feisty resignation, the boys' home life is believably something they would want to escape. But the film goes further, suggesting that Brooklyn itself is a dead end, the American equivalent of the Angry Young Men writer's industrial northern England and midlands. The younger brother is foundering as an artist thanks to lack of opportunity, and when he talks of moving out and getting his own Brooklyn apartment, a college friends sneers: "Different perch, same cage." Nick Thurston starts up a relationship with a grinning young travel agent with an unexpectedly wild streak (Leslie Murphy), who encourages him to run naked through a cemetery. But she's Los Angeles-bound, hoping to escape Brooklyn for a bigger city with more opportunity.

You sort of want to climb into the film and hand everybody a subway map. Somehow, none of them seem aware that there is an R train that will take them from Bay Ridge to Times Square in about half an hour. And I know that one of the themes of the film is that these are people who are mired in their neighborhood, oblivious to the larger world. I also know that I spent my entire childhood in the '70s traveling out to New York for extended stays with family in each of the boroughs, and they all fled to Manhattan any chance they could get.

Our tale is about a struggling Brooklyn artist who doesn't know where to turn for opportunity? Jean-Michel Basquiat was from Brooklyn — Boerum Hill, specifically, which is about 20 blocks from Bay Ridge. He ran away from home and slept on benches in Washington Square Park. He was soon making a reputation for himself as a street artist. This was 1976, about the same time that "White Irish Drinkers" is set. Maybe there was a unique myopia among Bay Ridge Irish-Americans that made it impossible for them to even see Manhattan (Thurston's escape plans have him going to Pittsburgh), but it isn't clearly established in the film, or even credible. The whole film seems similar to a movie set in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and consisting of people saying, "Things would be so much better if only I could find a beach!"

And what's so bad about the Brooklyn of the film? Thurston spends a lot of the story hanging out with his friends at bars and black-lit house parties where they drink beer, flirt with local girls, and generally goof around as '70s rock and roll plays. Far from being a noxious dead end, the film's Brooklyn seems like one long frat party. Hell, two of the cast members, Karen Allen and Peter Riegert, were in "Animal House," which seems a tacit admission that this film is, in part, set in the world of the Deltas. One expects the only reason Otter doesn't make a guest appearance is because he's at a women's college, claiming he lost his girlfriend in a freak kiln accident.

I guess, if I'm going to see a film about siblings trying to escape their circumstances with a series of ill-conceived crimes, I'd rather see something like "Fast Five." Both are nonsense, but this fifth film in "The Fast and the Furious" series wears its absurdity on its sleeve. The film follows Vin Diesel, playing a professional car thief, Jordana Brewster, playing his sister, and Paul Walker, playing a former cop who has thrown in with the bad guys, mostly because they seem to have more fun. All three are on the lam in Brazil, and they decided to pull of one last heist, as criminals always do in this sort of film.

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in "Fast Five."
Universal Pictures
Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in "Fast Five."

They decide to rob a man who is supposed to be the godfather of Brazilian crime, a character played by Joaquim de Almeida as an angry businessman in a flashy suit, the sort of crime boss you find in American soap operas. And so they assemble a team of experts and hatch a lunatic plan, and it's all very "Oceans Eleven," and preposterously entertaining. It especially helps that the film brings in Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a Diplomatic Security Service agent; he's treated by this film as being a sort of unrelenting machine of death, and he's the sort of man who will throw himself through a window in order to chase you across favela rooftops without thinking twice.

Of course, it probably helps that I saw this film at Block E with an especially rambunctious audience. They cheered the action nonstop, calling out a relentless stream of commentary. There's a moment in the film in which The Rock and Vin Diesel agree to join sides temporarily, and they clasp each other's forearms, as though they were intending to shake hands, but that didn't seem masculine enough so they shook antebrachiums instead. Seeing this, a woman in the audience called out, delighted: "Whoo-hoo! Drive naked!"

As much as I was enjoying "Fast Five," suddenly I wanted to see whatever film this woman was writing in her head.

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