In the dim period of the winter movie season, anything with or without merit at the multiplex has already been viewed or whose very premise (such as the Big Momma’s House sequel) speaks for itself without shelling out the $8. Some of this material is so depressing, I cannot lift myself out from my global warming-induced coma (that has reduced me to watching an uncountable and inexplicable number of Ocean’s Twelve screenings on HBO) to write a review. Normally I can something sublime out of any film going experience; even the worst of films can tell us something about the society that produced it. Of course, I think there’s probably more at work than just a crappy month for weather that also happens to be the time when Hollywood is so busy with awards that they can’t release anything good.
It might be that I moved back to the conservative backwater of Springfield, Missouri at around the same time the Moxie Cinema opened. You’ve heard me talk about the Moxie, but it means little if anything to a person who lives in a town with not only art house theaters, but art house multiplexes. The Moxie is just this tiny little space in downtown Springfield that barely seat 75 people but has shown impeccable taste in film selection and venue maintenance. They serve wine, beer, cheap candy, and popcorn with twelve different forms of seasoning. While I have lived in towns like Columbia and Lawrence, KS with similar amenities, the Moxie is nicer and feels homier. I’ve become spoiled by the experiences there. That is to say I don’t even want to go to the multiplex anymore when I know there’s something more fun and interesting at the Moxie. (Then again, Slate points out art house patrons have their own problems.) Being a film lover in a small metro area has always been depressing; the only option I’ve normally had was the multiplex. Now, I’ve got an alternative and that makes me a happy panda.
Unfortunately, this also is turning me into a bad film critic. I don’t see popular films people are interested in reading about. I mean, Big Momma’s House 2 is the Number One film in the country right now but I haven’t seen it yet. What’s worse is I am sure the pleasures I have of watching films at the Moxie are unnaturally inflating my opinion. Take the subject of this review, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, for instance. You’re probably surprised that’s the subject because I’ve spend two and a half paragraphs writing before even mentioning it. That’s called “burying the lead” in case you were interested. My instincts tell me to say the film is great when my brain is arguing the contrary. Pluto is a sharp, sprawling film about competing identity crisis’s that also happens to be a little too precious and a little long in the tooth. Would I have enjoyed this film if I’d seen it in a multiplex of rudeness and impersonality? Maybe, since the auditorium would have been empty anyway. So maybe all of the apologizing I’ve done wouldn’t have mattered anyhow.
To the matter at hand: I am not really sure what to make of Pluto. It’s one of those epics that covers a long era and goes in several directions whose central character doesn’t have to change because he’s too busy changing everyone else. In the past, this is normally the work of mentally-handicapped types like Forrest Gump or Being There’s Chauncy Gardiner. But Pluto follows contemporaneous cinematic endeavors and focuses on Patrick/Patricia “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy), an asexual transvestite that bounces around a tumultuous 1970’s Ireland. While appearing trendy along the lines of Bareback Mountain and Transamerica, Kitten still performs the same function as a Gump: He (I could use the pronoun “she” as well, but I will stick to the masculine form to avoid confusion.) so innocent that any kind of tragedy or horror would fall onto an oblivious, nonjudgmental mentality regardless of its magnitude. No matter what the film portrays, whether it be economic strife or terrorism, Kitten remains steadfastly resolved. But who can blame him. Abandoned as a newborn, he was adopted by Father Liam (Liam Neeson), who may or may not be the actual father. (Jordan has fun with the double meaning of “father” have no doubt.) From the offset, Kitten knows he’s different than the other children based on his tendency to don lipstick and dresses. He befriends all the class rejects and gets flogged for his creative writing assignments. Ultimately, he splits his little hamlet to look for his mother but lands the affection of glam-rocker Billy Hatchet (Gavin Friday). After falling out of favor for interrupting Hatchet’s side project of gun-running, Kitten becomes entangled with more entertainers (like Stephen Rea’s manipulative magician), working class hellions who attack small children in mascot outfits (like Brendan Gleeson’s John-Joe), and IRA bombings plots (like the one that demolishes a disco). He helps out his friend Charlie (Ruth Negga) when she becomes pregnant and gets sent to work at a peep show when an investigative detective (Ian Hart) feels sorry for him after kicking the stuffings out of him.
Despite all of this, Kitten remains upbeat. So does the soundtrack: Despite politically-motivated maiming and attempted rapes, the songs are as sunny as they were…on the Forrest Gump soundtrack! We root for Kitten to find her identity but it all seems oddly empty since Jordan’s approach (adapted from a Pat McCabe novel) never gets around to showing why this journey matters. For no matter what happens, Kitten is going to be Kitten. It’s as though the character has gone searching for a soul the film found at the offset. Jordan has been down this road before: With The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire, he uses alleged quests for identity more to show off oddball lifestyles than to discover anything meaningful. As intellectual exercises, they flounder. As cinematic experiences, I’ve had fun each time. Pluto is a gorgeous travelogue of the 1970’s Ireland with an electric ensemble that orbits Murphy’s tremendous performance. The breakthrough actor’s delicate physicality is a nice match for the emotional Kitten; he goes for and succeeds in creating a convincing character rather than settling for a juicy grandstanding spectacle. Seasoned pros like Gleeson and Rea (who seems to be doing a joke based off his performance in The Crying Game) also bring subtle grace to fantasy-laden film that indulges quirky cutesiness like subtitled robins and the aforementioned mascot outfits.
Overall, Pluto is pretty good. But that could be all of that delicious microbrew they serve at the counter talking.