Published June 1, 1997
It is unfortunate for Stephen Frears’s The Van, based on the novel by Roddy Doyle, that it is coming out at a time when the economies not only of most of the countries where it will be seen but even that of perennially down-on- its-luck Ireland, where the film is set, are booming. The careful specification that the action takes place in 1989-90 is not enough to overcome our sense of the artificiality of the hardship we are being asked to believe in. For this story of life among the unemployed, two of whom have a rather pathetic and yet heroic stab at realizing their dream of owning a business, depends on the poignancy of the losing struggle. Here, on the contrary, the business — a “chipper van” which sells fish and chips and hamburgers outside pubs and concerts and sporting events — is instantly successful and would indeed have made its two proprietors, Larry (Colm Meaney) and Bimbo (Donal O’Kelly) men of means if not for their lovable combination of Hibernian fecklessness and sentimentality.
For, much as I enjoyed the comedy of Doyle’s and Frears’s well-managed film, I couldn’t help feeling that it was rather a cheap sort of comedy because of its reliance on Irish stereotypes. Perhaps this is unfair of me. Perhaps most if not all comedy has a stereotype lurking in its background, and perhaps there is in it, as there is in many stereotypes, much truth. But there ought to be a little more detachment, some sense that the film itself is not committed to the stereotypes which it uses for comic effect. Here the stereotype is of male bonding through alcohol and sports and naughty-boy truancies away from the women-folk. Speaking as a male, I find these images attractive but feel that they should be approached with a certain degree of skepticism. Frears and Doyle are in love with them. And in the film’s ending they make the point that even the dream of self-sufficiency and independence for men on the dole has to take a back seat to their drunken equivalent of “I love you, man!”
In short the film is morally irresponsible, though its seductive qualities are not to be denied. Among these are the funny images of unemployment, to which Larry is far more successfully adapted than Bimbo. The latter has only just been “made redundant” (i.e. laid off) and so learns from Larry the ropes of watching daytime TV, looking after the kids or playing golf in the rain while wheeling a baby around the course in its stroller. Mixed in with these, however, are the occasional notes of contrived pathos, as when Larry reproves his teenage son Kevin (Ruaidhri Conroy) for mouthing off at table by the time-honored paternal technique of pointing who paid for the boy’s dinner: “I know who paid for it,” says Kevin. “The state.” It’s a little difficult to believe that dad couldn’t have seen that one coming.
As with the earlier films based on Roddy Doyle’s fiction, The Commitments and The Snapper, this one’s charm depends heavily on a distinctively Irish verbal humor. When, for instance, Larry brags to Bimbo about the academic achievements of his wife, who is taking an evening course in English literature, and the boy Kevin in school, he says: “The brains pour out of our house every time you open the f***ing door.” When the two men start trying to clean up the incredibly grimy van Bimbo says that the grease is half an inch thick, and cheery Larry replies: “Yeah, but we’re thicker!
Part of the endearing Irish schtick has to do with Larry’s frequent apologies for bad or temperamental behavior, or for fighting with Bimbo, his best friend, whose redundancy money bought the van. Their uneasy relationship depends on considerable diplomacy on Bimbo’s part and disarming humility on Larry’s. Once they actually come to blows, but stop the fight in the middle with the suggestion: “Lets go for a pint.” They have several. It is at this point that Bimbo determines to “kill the van” because it has come between them and threatens their long-standing friendship. The final scenes are nicely picturesque, but you may have to be Irish properly to appreciate them.