Mrs Browns Boys: D’Movie
Mrs Brown’s Boys. That show is a very strange phenomenon, one that has inexplicably managed to find an audience on both sides of the Irish Sea. Not since Father Ted has a joint venture between the two isles of this kind managed to find such a footing in the comedy world, and who would have thought it would be something about the familial adventures of an ageing North Dublin matriarch? And while this cross dressing comedy of Brendan O’Carroll’s is not a patch on the work of Linehan, Matthews and Morgan, its popularity is still something to note.
And now, almost inevitably, the movie version. A cash in? Or is it actually something more?
Mrs Agnes Brown (Brendan O’Carroll) runs an independent market stall in Dublin’s famous Moore Street, but fears for the continuance of the business due to her daughter’s (Jennifer Gibney) lack of interest. Worse, when a corrupt politician and a ruthless Russian business man seek to buy her stall to make way for a shopping centre, Mrs Brown faces a trying court battle to try and save her way of life.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on. My shorter, non-spoiler, review, should soon be available on The Write Club.
Oh boy. Right. I’ll admit that I am a bit of a fan of Mrs Browns Boys. It taps into that same kind of feeling that Father Ted did, without ever really threatening to be as good as that comedic gem. It isn’t intelligent or likely to stick in the mind the way Father Ted did. But, much like Americans things like Two And A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory, it’s a comedy about niche characters good for a few laughs in around 30 minutes or so without ever making you feel anything deeper than brief laughter.
That sounds harsh reading it back, but it fits. O’Carroll might claim to be making something deeper, but he is most assuredly not. And that continues on into D’Movie.
In many ways, it is like the TV show. It contained the same humour at the same levels, essentially making D’Movie a very long episode of TV on a bigger screen. It essentially covers the same themes and relationships that O’Carroll has already gone over with a fine tooth comb in the TV show. The same characters do the same things, just with a slightly higher budget and a bit more “peril”.
But it is also not like the TV show in other ways. Part of the charm of Mrs Browns Boys was tied up in the studio format, with the live audience, the laugh track, the visible camera men and boom mike operators, and the way that O’Carroll would gleefully include them in the performance. I suppose it was like watching a stage play on your TV, which is exactly how the concept started of course. D’Movie tries to replicate that, actually hanging a lantern on the change in quality in the opening minutes, but ultimately it just can’t match what it used to have. The actual outdoor sets, the improvement in camera quality, the larger scope of the production, it all just feels so…wrong. Unnatural for this property. Mrs Browns Boys loses something very important with this leap into the unknown.
It’s easy to talk about the positives of Mrs Browns Boys, since they are so few in reality. The film will make you laugh a few times, and if you like the TV show, you will also like this, regardless of what any mountain of critics will tell you. It has that same kind of rapid style, one liner humour. It misses as much as it hits, but the general product is not all that different from what has come before. I liked the humour, God help me, because sometimes you actually want something low brow. There’s no shame in that. Not everything can be Frasier Crane-esque all the time.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into the negatives.
The film is way too long. The feel of being an elongated episode of the TV show never goes away, and nobody really wants to watch three back to back episodes of such a thing lest you just become bored and desensitised to what it is trying to accomplish. O’Carroll and the director do try and wring as much out of the premise as they can, with lots of barmy sub-plots, some of which do not get anything approaching a resolution. There are too many minor characters to keep track off, even too many antagonists – there’s the politician, the Russian businessman, the hoodlums (though they sort of disappear as characters at the start of the third act really). It’s all just to keep things ticking over, and to get to the magic number of 90 minutes.
That’s probably the most obvious problem in the general make-up of D’Movie, and the others are more well worn. O’Carroll loves to try and inject a lot of faux-sentimentality into his productions with this character, the sort of humdrum family problems and happy endings that got tired a very long time ago. D’Movie pushes things to 11 on that score, with the “revelation” that the titular matriarch briefly put her children into care when her husband died. It’s hard for such things to genuinely pull on the heartstrings when you’re watching such a manic caricature, and Mrs Browns Boys suffers from that most treacherous of tightropes to walk: the divide between comedy and drama, that only the most nuanced production can turn into a functioning dramedy. D’Movie is too scatter brained and flippant in its humour to mesh successfully with such a serious sadness.
And then there is the Dublin stuff. I’m from Limerick, but I live in Kildare. I spend a fair amount of time in Dublin, and my girlfriend is from the Cabra area of the northside. So, it’s fair to say that I am an outsider to the Dublin ethos, while being as generally close to it as I can reasonably be. That means that the love-in for Dublin that Mrs Browns Boys, TV and film, expresses for the place goes partially over my head.
I get liking your area and having pride in it. But not being brought up in that environment means that the unending praise and fawning over Dublin’s Moore Street and its market leaves me rather confused. D’Movie, in some of its most insipid and lifeless sequences, tries to pretend that Moore Street and its culture is what makes Dublin what it is. It’s the beating heart apparently, the area that represents what the city has to show the world. This comes as a surprise to me, having generally found Moore Street to be a dank, dirty, smelly place, filled with ugly graffiti, abandoned buildings, aggressive produce sellers and a general feel of not being too far away from becoming an area you would be uncomfortable walking through alone at night.
Am I snob? Am I too much an outsider, to understand Moore Street’s appeal? Maybe. I only know what I feel, and that’s that D’Movie’s insistence that Moore Street’s fruit and vegetable sellers are some kind of national treasure is a bit farfetched, as is the idea that the street they’re on not needing some large improvements.
Then there are the other elements that may affront. A racist caricature has redeeming comedic value if it says something about the society perpetrating the racism (like that Stephen Colbert thing a while ago, mindlessly misinterpreted by an outrage addicted section of the audience). O’Carroll’s Asian stereotype (or an Irish guy doing an Asian stereotype, it was a little unclear) has little redeeming value, just a funny voice and funny looking character. Contrast that with some other stuff, like the Pakistani produce seller constantly being mistaken for Jamaican. That’s funnier, because the joke is on the ignorant Irish person who should know better. Mrs Brown is the idiot in that joke. “Mr Wang” does not have that kind of appeal. Mix it in with some odd shots at the blind, and you’ve got yourself a big fat miss on the comedy side of things.
And then there is the larger issue of the “Russian” bad guy who wants to build a supermarket in Moore Street. I can’t have been the only person detecting a bit of LIDL/ALDI bashing there, the idea that these stores are some kind of an evil brought to Ireland by foreigners with vaguely eastern European accents. That made me more than a little uncomfortable, especially in combination with a ridiculous assertion near the end that Dublin has no problem accepting people from other cultures. Pull the other one Brendan, Moore Street isn’t a utopia.
There is also some brief commentary on contemporary issues in Ireland, mostly regarding government corruption, the downfall of small business in favour of larger ones performing the same services, being heavily indebted unjustly and the shame visited upon mothers who “can’t cope”. Not much of it really lands, mostly due to the previous point on the unsuccessful meshing of comedy and drama. No point is picked up on for very long before we’re off to the next one, and even for the most serious stuff, it doesn’t take too long for a very big joke to be made out of everything. That’s fine, but don’t expect tears when your product is going for laughs.
The general plot is straight out of “TV adapted for film 101” and bears about as much analysis as a plot of an episode on the small screen. In-between the bits involving blind ninjas and crazy chase sequences around the countryside is Mrs Brown fighting a desperate court battle, but there is never a point when you will be truly invested in that struggle, so crazy is everything going on around it. The finale is quick and to a point – the status quo is restored and everybody dances. Feel good? To an extent, but I’d hardly call it a satisfying story.
I always say something about female characters, so I suppose I should give it a go here. If you’re doing a crossdressing film you might want to make some kind of commentary on gender politics or something. D’Movie doesn’t do that, not really. When I talk female characters I think I have a general requirement that they be played by female actors, since the whole point is to see what kind of roles the film industry is coming up with for women, not men dressed as women. Leave that to the Ancient Greeks. The actual women in the film are as relegated as they come: Jennifer Gibney’s daughter character is the only one of note, and her role in the plot isn’t really anything worth talking about too much: a blasé angle about how she doesn’t want to follow in her parents footsteps…but then she does anyway. Because it’s better for kids to do that. Apparently. Hmm.
I really don’t want to get drawn too much into a discussion about the deeper aspects and themes of D’Movie, because it really is fairly shallow. O’Carroll, when he isn’t defending his film from rather pertinent accusations of racism, delights in that, in creating this simple accessible product that you don’t really have any requirement to think about for more than 15 seconds. There are thoughts offered on motherhood, what it means to raise a large family in poor circumstances, the kind of legacy you leave behind you when you’re gone. But every one of them is basically brought up as the plot requires and abandoned just as quickly. Yes, we see Mrs Brown go through the trauma of some of her past mistakes being brought to a very prominent light, but her children dismiss the whole thing very quickly. Yes, Mrs Brown and Cathy have a recurring argument about carrying on the family business, but Cathy gives in on that score with very little agency of her own. Yes, there is a lot of dialogue about, concerning and from family but there is nothing added to those relationships that aren’t already existing in the TV show. D’Movie has no great depth. As much of the cast might point out, as they openly declare the irrelevance of bad reviews, that’s exactly what they aimed to create.
Man, this is a short review. But there is very little to review. Mrs Browns Boys: D’Movie, will not live long in the memory, and will certainly not insert itself easily into the cultural zeitgeist like Father Ted did (and thank God we never had to sit through a Father Ted movie). It has its jokes, its decent enough visuals. Its cast reaches the same levels as the TV show in terms of performances, and the same can be said for the plot generally. Many people will despise this film, and I understand why perfectly. Many others will appreciate it a bit more, and I understand that as well. Shallow, overly-ambitious in its timing and structure, offensive in parts and humdrum in others, D’Movie is not a great example of comedic film. But it might just deserve a bit more of a fair hearing than what has gotten.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures)