After intense dramas like Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father, it’s a welcome surprise to see Irish director Terry George helming the lighthearted and thoroughly entertaining new comedy Whole Lotta Sole.
George, who won an Oscar this year for his comic short film The Shore, has made his career directing big budget drama about ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges, and in that sense Whole Lotta Sole follows directly from his own tradition as a filmmaker.
Opening with bang in South Boston, we meet Joe Maguire (Brendan Fraser) as he’s running out on his psychotically angry wife, who we later discover is the daughter of an Irish Mafia capo with a strong resemblance to Whitey Bulger.
To escape her – and more importantly, to escape retaliation from her angry dad – Maguire decides to hole up in his cousin’s antique shop in Belfast, lying low until the heat wears off.
Not everyone thinks of Belfast first when they’re looking for peace and quiet, and sure enough no sooner does Maguire touch down but he finds himself being trailed by young Jimbo (Martin McCann). Then a sinister looking hood call Mad Dog Flynn (David O’Hara) turns up in his shop making thinly veiled threats and demanding payment and the roller coaster plot is set in motion.
We learn that poor Jimbo also owes Mad Dog money -- £5,000 to be exact -- and he has no honest way to raise it. It get worse when Mad Dog tells him if he doesn’t raise the money he’ll take Jimbo’s infant son in payment instead, to be raised by his own wife who’s childless and desperate to experience motherhood.
In his desperation Jimbo asks himself where do observant Catholics spend money on a Friday? The answer comes to him instantly -- in a fish market. Out he goes for an ancient IRA submachine gun still stashed in his friend’s grandfather’s house to rob the day’s takings.
What he doesn’t know is that the market is just the front for another one of Mad Dog illegal operations. Worse, Mad Dog’s mother holds the keys to the safe.
Piling on, it turns out there’s very little money in the stolen bag, but there’s plenty of incriminating evidence that Mad Dog will kill to retrieve.
All of these plot points are slowly revealed as Whole Lotta Sole introduces us to one of the main stars of the show -- the all new post-ceasefire, post-Good Friday Agreement buzzing Belfast. Gone are the British army patrols and the heavy atmosphere, in their place is a city filled with lively characters and lots of craic.
George’s ease and familiarity with the sights and sounds of Belfast rivals Roddy Doyle’s with Dublin in his Barrytown trilogy (George even cleverly casts Colm Meaney to underline the comparison), but there are much darker edges to Whole Lotta Sole that remind you that it’s the north, and that it’s a script co-written by George himself.
The real action takes place when Jim and his gorgeous new Ethiopian girlfriend Sophie (Yaya Da Costa) are held up in a dramatic siege in the antique shop by the desperate Jimbo, who’s running out of time and options.
Into this powder keg set up comes the police detective Weller (Colm Meaney) a foul mouthed, old school street-smart detective who’s determined to stop the situation from escalating fatally.
It being the north a hostage crisis is the last thing the powers that be want splashed across the world’s headlines, and the unaccredited but always-superb Tom Hollander gives a hilarious cameo as a British Ministry of Defense flunky anxious to avoid cross community conflicts at all costs.
What no one but Mad Dog knows that the contents of Jimbo’s stolen bag could bring down his whole criminal empire and he has plans of his own to dispose of the evidence.
The legacy of the conflict haunts the edges of Whole Lotta Sole in interesting ways, but this is a comedy caper and the spirited cast set to work with gusto. As a traveler mother with two kids caught up in the siege, actress Marie Jones is a five-alarm fire of indignation and swearing. Jones inhabits her character (and the spirit of the city itself really) so vividly you’ll want to watch a sequel that focuses on her.
David O’Hara also deserves a special mention for his sensationally funny and menacing turn as Mad Dog Flynn. When he leans in toward Jimbo and says, “I want your wee son,” in his slow Belfast accent you won’t know whether to laugh or shiver.
As Joe Maguire, the likable but very out of his depth Yankee blow in, Fraser gives a charming but low-key performance. The one-time screen god portrays Maguire as a rather haunted looking middle aged man whose youthful confidence seems to have been replaced by a forty-something world weariness that speaks of one too many disappointments along the way.
It’s a new kind of character from Fraser’s repertoire and he’s utterly convincing. Maguire, we discover, may or may not be Jimbo’s long-lost dad via a summer fling with his mother in the 1980s, and this connection brings all the plot points together neatly as the action kicks in.
Newcomer and Belfast native McCann, 28, gets the best possible exposure in his role as Jimbo, the sensitive and excitable would be hood who can’t find the necessary bluster to fool anyone that he’s not a good guy. McCann also stars in the popular $30 million British TV miniseries Titanic Blood and Steel this month and his star is firmly on the rise. In Whole Lotta Sole he’s proved he can carry a feature, and he steals a few scenes from veteran Fraser.
Some scenes are true comic stand out, such as Jimbo’s botched fish market hold up. Burdened with a hair trigger submachine gun that really belongs in a museum, when it fires by accident the tension and the misunderstandings build to a comic climax that delighted the Tribeca Film Festival audience at its debut screening.
Belfast was at war for decades, but in Whole Lotta Sole it has finally found its way toward peace and, as George’s new film makes clear, towards reconciliation too.
That reconciliation is personified in Meany’s gruff detective Weller, who has to accept that his policeman son has taken his wife’s Catholic faith rather than his own Protestantism. That Weller can accept the changing times without wanting to change the people that create them is a measure of the new reality in the north that the film quietly celebrates.
From the director of In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son who at one time was a political prisoner in the notorious Long Kesh, George knows Belfast and its history like his own. Whole Lotta Sole is his sweet but never saccharine celebration of a town and its people, and it’s as spirited and funny as the city it presents.