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Saturday, July 8, 2000

'THE CLOSER YOU GET'

From Donegal, with love


When it comes to images of Ireland, the "Lucky Charms" leprechaun has a lot to answer for. The little imp taught us that Ireland was all about jolly lads and pink-cheeked lasses, the Blarney Stone and a smiling blue sky. On the other hand, darkly political movies like "Nothing Personal," "Devil's Own" and "Patriot Games" are just as guilty of playing up another aspect of Ireland -- barbed wire, M-16s and teenage terrorists -- and turning a blind eye to all else. The truth, as they say, must lie somewhere in between.

It's this middle terrain that Irish movies of late are trying to develop. Stories out of that lovely green island now touch on the personal and the universal, with themes that are neither travel brochure nor tragic IRA. Last year, it was "Waking Ned Devine." This summer, get ready to smile with "The Closer You Get," a film that's as down-to-earth and comfy homespun as its characters.

Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of sprawling on a sofa with bad springs in an Irish friend's apartment, being force-fed bottles of warm Guinness accompanied by packets of what they call "crisps."

"The Closer You Get" is set in a place called Donegal, where "lush green fields roll on and on and man lives in harmony with beast," as described by 18-year-old Sean (Sean McDonagh). But the postcard scenery has lost its effect on most of the residents -- they picked up and left. The remaining populace consists of an unmarried and unmarketable group of men, plus a handful of women who never give them a second glance. The local church, headed by Father Malone (Risteard Cooper), has staged many funerals but the last marriage ceremony was so long ago he's forgotten how to conduct one.

Then on the weekly church "movie day," the priest accidentally shows the opening scenes of "10": Bo Derek frolicking on a Miami beach. This scene does more to wake up the men than a collective intravenous vitamin shot. They decide they want love, passion and an American wife, they want to wake up to the sounds of Bo Derek making coffee. The local butcher Kieran (Ian Hart) suggests putting an ad in the Miami Herald: "Wanted, attractive young women between 20 and 21, for dating with views of marriage."

The Celtic male certainly gets right to the point. With the ad dispatched, Kieran proceeds to change his bod and his life: dyeing his hair, cutting down on the beer and doing pushups. Well, at least one pushup. Already in his mid-30s, Kieran has never had a proper girlfriend and never learned how to speak to a woman. His brother Ian (Sean McGinley) is the same, a sheep farmer of middle age who is resigned to fate and life -- this is as good as it's ever going to get.

The brothers and other "boys" gather at the pub every night (where else would they go?) to air their woes or compare notes on how they would welcome the American beauties, if and when they arrive.

What they don't realize of course, is that love is standing right before their eyes, in the form of women like Siobhan (Cathleen Bradley), who works as Kieran's assistant, or Kate (Niamh Cusack), the long-suffering wife of a cheating husband. Naturally, they're mightily peeved that their men would prefer some bikini-clad girl from Florida to the homegrown product. And they're right. The big hitch in this movie is the wonder of how such attractive femmes came to be neglected in the first place.

This is director Aileen Ritchie's feature debut, after many years' work on short films. One of them caught the eye of producer Uberto Pasolini, the man behind smash hit "The Full Monty," who handpicked her to helm the project.

Ritchie's style is almost documentary -- her scenes are straightforward and no-nonsense, start to finish. Her goal was to make the story "more real than life" and took care to obliterate every last trace of pretentiousness. The costumes were fished out of church barrels and secondhand shops, makeup was kept to the barest minimum, houses were deliberately painted over to look drab.

But there's a charm that rises from all this, a brand of charm that goes right to something buried deep in our DNA. If you can't have a vacation in a remote Irish village, this is probably the closest you're going to get.

Don't forget the crisps.

"The Closer You Get" will open July 22 at Hibiya Chanter Cine in Hibiya and other theaters.


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