AS HIS family left New York for Ireland in 1935, recalls Frank McCourt, "we must have been the only immigrant family to be leaving the Statue of Liberty."
Frank's the now-grown narrator of "Angela's Ashes," writer-director Alan Parker's spirited adaptation of McCourt's true-life memoir, a saga of abject misery that (in both book and film) is assuaged by the writer's inspired sense of poignancy and humor.
"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood," says McCourt in film and book. "And worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
Frank (played at various ages by Joseph Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge) was born in Brooklyn, but his Irish parents, Malachy (Robert Carlyle) and Angela (Emily Watson), are returning to Limerick in the old country to seek their fortune.
Fat chance: They only have enough money for two weeks' rent. Frank and his siblings, Malachy Jr., and twins Oliver and Eugene, are already barefoot. And when they get to Limerick, Malachy's daily schedule consists of shaving, getting dressed, not finding a job, then going to the pub.
Angela, a stoic woman, is left to run a home with no money. But no one berates their father. It's simply understood that he's terminally hopeless.
"That's the Baby Jesus," says Angela, as her children stare at a painting of Christ on the wall of their drab new place. "You need anything, you have to ask him."
"Will you tell Jesus that we're hungry?" pipes a McCourt child.
If this marks the beginning of a miserable life for the family, it portends a marvelously funny, if bracing, experience for us. With an embarrassment of riches provided by McCourt's best-selling text, Parker and co-writer Laura Jones simply have to pick and choose from the best of his book.
Of course, the movie is a thinner version of the novel, but you still get a drama that has you laughing and brokenhearted, often at the same time.
The beds are flea-infested. Three McCourt children die. Another is born. The local teacher calls Frank "a bad Yank." The church does little to help the impoverished McCourts. Angela's Catholic family refuses to accept Malachy, who's a Protestant. And the foyer to their second home -- if that's not too fancy a term for a house with no toilet of its own -- is usually ankle deep in rainwater.
Malachy's idea of taking paternal responsibility is making the kids some shoes with the rubber from an old tire. But, mostly, his response to anything is drink. And, in one stunning scene, Frank watches with anger as his fathercomes to the pub carrying a coffin containing the body of one of his dead children. He orders a pint, places it on top of the small wooden box, then wipes off the wet ring.
But humor takes us through the pain, year by year. The narration is ironic, touching and often hilarious, as Frank takes us through a familiar round of Irish Catholic highlights: First Communion, confession sessions and visits to the Lyric Cinema to watch James Cagney movies.
Parker, who made the infectiously amusing "The Commitments," knows this kind of territory. He makes sure just about everyone has a funny retort for life in Misery Lane.
When Frank -- known as Francis -- throws up his breakfast after First Communion, his stern grandmother exclaims, "He's thrown up the body and blood of Jesus!"
After a while, the movie gets a little long-winded, as things go from terrible to worse: Malachy leaves, intending to find work and money in England. The family is evicted and forced to live with a relative, Laman, who expects sexual reciprocation for free board. Frank moves into adolescence, falls in love, discovers Shakespeare, then thinks about returning to the country where he was born. And so on. By this time, the rhythm of the story has become lost. And even though the events of the story amount to the dawning of Frank McCourt's writerly consciousness -- this is about the birth and growth of an artistic sensibility -- you feel a silent protest growing inside you, which simply screams, "Enough!"
ANGELA'S ASHES (R, 146 minutes) -- Contains emotionally harrowing material, nudity, obscenity and profanity. Area theaters.