Except that it’s set in a small Irish village, Waking Ned Devine could pass for Grumpy Old Men 3. Instead of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, it stars two aging Irish actors, Ian Bannen and David Kelly.
Bannen and Kelly play Jackie and Michael, two old friends who don’t act their age. (The two take motorcycle rides to the icy Atlantic to go skinny-dipping.) When they learn someone from their village (of just 52 people) has won the lottery, they concoct some wacky schemes to befriend the winner.
They target the 18 known lotto players from the village and invite them all over for a nice chicken supper. One by one, they rule everyone out, until they deduce the winner must have been the man who didn’t come, Ned Devine.
Jackie trudges up to Devine’s house in a storm, carrying a chicken supper as a bribe... gift. He finds Devine sitting in front of the telly, the winning ticket clutched in his dead hand. The shock of winning the lottery must have given old Ned a heart attack.
Jackie and Michael try to claim the ticket for themselves, with Michael taking Ned’s identity. They manage to fool the lotto man on the first visit, but he informs them he’ll have to ask around — make sure Ned’s who he says he is. Now Jackie and Michael have to include the whole town in the scheme if they want to avoid prison. They won’t get their millions, but it still leaves £130,000 for every person in the village — if they can pull it off.
The movie’s got a (mostly) good heart and more brain than you might think. Jackie’s wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) is the movie’s loving moral conscience. She makes the two heroes ponder the fraud they are committing and the potential wishes of the deceased. If this were truly a sitcom, such questions could be laughed off with a joke or two. But the two heroes take the question to heart and consider how they can do some good with the money.
The movie even remembers to tell us where the money would have gone, had not Jackie and Michael intervened. After all, the money wouldn’t have vanished into thin air. It would have gone... well, you’ll have to see for yourself.
There is only one time that the movie is unapologetically blackhearted, and it stands out in contrast to the rest of the film. It’s a scene that’s supposed to make you cheer, but it is unnecessarily cruel, and it calls into question the film’s otherwise goodhearted nature. Many audiences actually did cheer, so you may too. But I found myself wincing at the films sudden wicked glee.
The film is full of colorful minor characters. There’s a pig farmer in love with the town’s flirt. She loves him too but can’t stand the smell. There’s a rookie minister who talks to the town’s youngest boy, who has tough and practical questions about God.
Unfortunately, none of the minor characters is developed enough to really let you get attached. They are quirky, and at times amusing, but they are on the whole flat and robotic. The fact that the “evil” villager is dealt with so mercilessly is enough to tell you that Jones didn’t consider his minor characters to be fully human, but rather offbeat icons of a small town.
Waking Ned Devine is no great film. The direction is adequate, if a bit predictable. The film’s timing seems to be just a bit off. The sitcom aspect to the comedy feels a bit too contrived, as do the moments of earnest friendship. The widescreen cinematography is good, but disappointingly mundane given such a photogenic setting (the film was shot on the rugged and rustic Isle of Man).
On the other hand, I don’t think it was striving for greatness. It’s only supposed to be a lightweight, fun comedy. And on that level, it succeeds pretty well. If you’re interested in seeing Grumpy Old Irishmen, don’t let me stop you. It’s not a bad movie, and it certainly can be entertaining.
Just don’t say I sent you.