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'Ned Devine':
Dublin Over With Laughs

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 1998

  Movie Critic

Waking Ned Devine
David Kelly and Ian Bannen are charming conspirators in "Waking Ned Devine." (Fox Searchlight)

Kirk Jones
Ian Bannen;
David Kelly;
Fionnula Flanagan;
Susan Lynch;
James Nesbitt
Running Time:
1 hour, 31 minutes
Has very mild old-man nudity and sexual innuendo
"Waking Ned Devine" is slight as the froth on a pint of Guinness, but it's still a delight. It's for the Irish scamp in all of us and if you've got no Irish scamp in you, more's the pity.

It's basically the story of a joyous fraud, and of God's mercy on the larcenous of heart. It proves that the August Gentleman has a sense of humor – and a sense of timing. If the movie were 92 minutes it would be unbearable; fortunately, it lasts but 91.

Ah, Ned Devine. Great Ned. Heroic Ned. Self-sacrificing Ned. Ireland needs more Neds, no, boyos? Here's what Ned has managed to do for himself: (a) win about $14 million in the national lottery and, one second later, (b) drop cold-scone dead.

Now, folks, we could mourn Neddie and it would be appropriate. However, while we're doing that, the government bloke's going to learn that it's Neddie who's passed, and then the $14 mil goes on to other places.

What's the village to do? Well, if it's Tully More, a cosmopolis of 50-odd souls along Ireland's emerald coast, the idea of splitting $14 mil 50-odd ways proves irresistible. So, awaken Ned Devine. Well, barring a miracle, that's probably not in the cards. Next step: Send in a clone.

The two geniuses behind this mild conspiracy are Jackie O'Shea (the great Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (the great, if heretofore unknown David Kelly). Kelly can't be a leprechaun, because he's too tall, but he might be another form of elf, because he can't weigh more than 60 pounds soaking wet. Ancient and dry of bone, he's got the piercingly innocent eyes of an ewe, and the beatific passivity of a babe in a manger. Imagine a prune wrinkled toward cosmic complexity, then miraculously recast in piping pink flesh and given the trooper spirit of a color sergeant in the Irish Rifles.

It's Jackie who's the schemer. He originally learns that someone in Tully More has won the draw and enlists Michael to unearth the lucky boy. They bribe their way into the confidence of the townies with chicken dinners and Irish whiskey in prodigious amounts, and only then realize that Ned alone hasn't shown up. Thus they find old Ned in his house by the sea, looking into the empty eye of the telly but facing eternity with a smile on his face and the winning lottery ticket in his frozen fingers.

The government man comes (played by a decent Brendan F. Dempsey) and it falls to Michael O'Sullivan to pretend to be Ned – this, it should be added, after the strangest vehicle chase in movies, one contestant being an automobile with the government man and the bluffing, stalling Jackie aboard, the other being a motorbike under Michael's desperate guidance. He is wearing a helmet and goggles but otherwise is as jaybird-nekkid as the day he was born 70-odd years ago. Old men's bodies are not funny to old men, it is true, but this old man's body, a scarecrow's sheathed in a thin garment of flesh the color of fine Egyptian linen and sustained by a strutwork of filament-frail fishbones, hurtling along at 60 miles per through the blurred green countryside, is one of the great funny sights of the year.

Michael gets to the house in time to stow the actual, rather crispy Ned, and just barely gets through the impersonation. The government man will return, however. At this point Jackie realizes that in order to work, the conspiracy must be expanded to include the whole village. It shows what a town without money can do.

You keep expecting a big twist, a final complication, the possible arrival of tragedy. Yet writer-director Kirk Jones III keeps the movie resolutely brisk and light, twisting mildly this way and that but never detouring for long. A few subplots prance across the foreground – there's a romantic triangle among Pig Finn (James Nesbitt), a farmer who smells like his swine, and a local gal and some kind of vague aristo, but it never comes to much. There's a villain – a nasty old gal who snarls through pedestrian traffic on her electric tractor, barking at the peasants to evacuate her pathway after she's done pinching holes in all the bread crusts to locate the freshest one. Hers is a divine fate, possibly the movie's funniest moment, but to describe it would be to destroy it.

"Waking Ned Devine" is for Irishmen of all gender, nationality and stripe; you'll dance a jig on the way out.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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