It may take a village to raise a child, but in the movies, village folk band together for projects that are usually much less noble. Consider, for example, the Irish comedy Waking Ned Devine. The residents of tiny Tully More learn that their dead friend Ned has won the national lottery — and decide to claim the 6.9 million[pounds] jackpot by allowing Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) to impersonate the dead man. Can they fool the Dublin yuppie who comes to debrief Devine?
That’s practically a rhetorical question, given what a staple the bumpkins-outwit-city-slickers film has become. You might even call it a mini-genre: the community caper.
Here’s how old the idea is: The delightful Ealing Studios confection Whisky Galore (also known as Tight Little Island, 1949) rendered it with impeccably wry flair 50 years ago. In this version, the fisherfolk of a minuscule Scottish island, starved for booze owing to WWII rationing, rejoice to find foundering just off their shores a ship carrying 50,000 cases of whiskey — but can they get around Captain Waggett (Basil Radford)? Their clever evasions (one man fills his hot-water bottle with hooch; women hide the whiskey under babies in their cradles) and straight faces make the deceit that much more delicious. Meanwhile, director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success) deftly interweaves a couple of amusing romantic subplots (keep an eye out for a gorgeously youthful Gordon Jackson — later Upstairs, Downstairs‘ Hudson the butler — as a shy swain cowed by his flinty mother).
It was a third of a century before anyone matched Whisky’s panache. Writer-director Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) follows American oil exec Mac (Peter Riegert) as he negotiates his company’s big-bucks purchase of a tiny Scottish hamlet. To get the maximum price, the villagers bargain collectively. In the end, they get the best of Mac just by gently making friends with him. Though Forsyth includes potentially overwacky elements — Mac’s astronomy-crazed boss (Burt Lancaster), a sexy oceanographer who may be a mermaid — he handles the characters with humane delicacy.
In Christopher Monger’s The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995), the burg is in Wales, and the out-of-towners are two cartographers (Hugh Grant and Ian McNeice) who’ve come to measure the local landscape. When it turns out the town’s hill is 16 feet too short to qualify as a mountain (and a place on the map), the inhabitants scheme to waylay the pair until they can add a mound up top. Grant’s titular Englishman falls in love with a local girl (Tara Fitzgerald) as the villagers trudge up the hill with their buckets of dirt, but the outcome is never in doubt (look at the title). Monger fills the time with such obvious devices as a shell-shocked former soldier surmounting his fear, and a minister and barkeep laying aside their enmity.
Kirk Jones, the writer-director of Waking Ned Devine, keeps the sentimentality quotient low in Tully More, conveying the respectful fondness these folks feel for each other and the fun they get from their shenanigans. A mischievous spark shines from these Irish eyes, but Jones can’t help exploiting the characters’ eccentricities for laughs, so before long we’re watching Kelly’s naked old man riding a motorbike. If Jones had refrained from such easy guffaws, he could have made a truly Devine comedy.
Whisky Galore: A-
Local Hero: A-
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain: C-
Waking Ned Devine: B