Like all those one-note eastern European movies, Bill Forsyth's films transport you to a place you'd rather avoid. In the Scotland of "Comfort and Joy," the dreary is relieved only by the quaint, the permanent gray mottled with sugary goo -- no wonder these people invented whiskey.
Like Forsyth's markedly superior "Local Hero," "Comfort and Joy" spins around midlife crisis. Dickey Bird (the enervated Bill Paterson) is a happy-talking dawn-hour disc jockey ("You know what they say about the early worm -- it always catches the Bird" lilts his jingle) thrown into a tizzy when his girlfriend jilts him under the mistletoe. Christmas stocking filled with angst, he says goodbye to Good-time Charlie: "I'm not just a clown," he tells the station manager. He wants to do documentaries.
He finds his subject when, following an ice cream truck (the girl behind the counter caught his eye), he sees it ambushed by a ski-masked gang of marauders. Thus is he introduced to the "ice-cream wars" between Mr. Bunny and Mr. McCool, who enlist him as a sort of Highlands Henry Kissinger to mediate their dispute.
With numbing obviousness, Forsyth proceeds to make ice cream a metaphor for pretty much everything. Here in a neatly packaged carton is Bird's midlife blues: "My life was the wrong flavor," he says. "I was raspberry but I should have been vanilla." His relationship with his girlfriend was "chocolate mousse." And the drama is played out against a backdrop of guerrilla warfare and border skirmishes in Africa, reported via the radio station's news blurbs. Ice cream, for Forsyth, symbolizes all the petty things people go to war over.
Bird falls in love with the traditions of the ice-cream community, only to be disillusioned by their greed; in retreading "Local Hero" this way, Forsyth presents the distressing spectacle of an artist moving backwards, rapidly. Forsyth drags on his rustics and his quaint artifacts with the relentlessness of Old Williamsburg, as if it's enough that his characters have funny accents ("Yaahrrr becummin a fahrrr hazzzudd, Maddy"). This man doesn't make movies -- he makes theme parks.
The dejected disc-spinner learns to appreciate his own work when a woman in a nursing home tells him that he makes her smile every morning; Forsyth's justification for art is that it sweetens the bitter pill of life -- he's the Mr. Softee of the cinema. And Bird resolves the dispute with a recipe for a new bon-bon that makes them partners in profit. This view of politics is as cloying as it is untrue -- blood is thicker than Baked Alaska. "Comfort and Joy," opening today at the Outer Circle, is rated PG.