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The third installment of Irish author Roddy Doyle's 'Barrytown Trilogy', following 'The Commitments' and 'The Snapper', depicts the hilarious yet poignant adventures of Bimbo. Upon being fired from his job at the bakery, Bimbo and his best mate go into business for themselves and purchase a chipper (a fish and chips van); but will the pressures of financial success sour their friendship forever? Written by
Dawn M. Barclift
This is the third story in Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy", following the adventures of the Rabbitte family. However, as 20th Century Fox owned the film rights to the Rabbitte name (from The Commitments), the characters had to be re-named in the subsequent film adaptations (The Snapper, The Van). See more »
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Uneven but with a distinct allure, The Van is an odd little film that meshes humour with social realism and whose cherry on top is a study of 'men in crisis'.
The Van, a 1996 Stephen Frears film who would go on to much better things, takes on the ideas of desperate, inglorious situations and scenarios, such as unemployment, and wraps them up into packages ready to be delivered as comedy. There is nothing at all funny about the situation the two leads in the film find themselves in, but there is something distinctly charming about the way in which they deal with it.
While not essentially British, a given thanks to the over emphasis on how wonderful it was for the characters to witness the Irish football team pull back a goal and hold on for a draw against the English, while most of the other matches go unnoticed. However, it is directed by an Englishman and the film does posses rather a few items that were written about in regards to some growing fears and concerns simmering at the time within the British film industry, with particular attention to the comedy genre. If we recall Claire Monk's writings in the late 1990s, we might think of films such as Brassed Off and The Full Monty as being films depicting jobless British males turning to alternate methods of money making to get by; effectively rendering the crisis of post-industrialism (closure of mines and steel mills) as a crisis of masculinity. She also writes about these films transitioning problematic situations into comic solutions. These ideas and scenarios might be applicable to The Van, a film that spins job-loss and perceived men in crisis into a series of jokes and gags; a film that, like said examples, see the leads turn to either an entertainment or cultural supply and demand industry, in which they eventually come to relish.
One of the two leads in The Van is Bimbo (O'Kelly), a man who has lost his job and gets by off of his redundancy money. The other is Larry (Meaney), and between them, they aim to get a portable fast food outlet up and running. Whilst it's not about becoming strippers or brass-band musicians, it is essentially about two men turning to cooking and meal preparation by way of getting by. Its set up; a male panic, followed by a lot of sitting around complete with head scratching before hitting upon an idea to move into what is a form of the cooking industry, sees the two leads adopt a culinary position; something that Monk may have been alluding two when she describes early 1990s 'new men' as having to now share the once sole motherly burdens; this of course includes cooking and meal preparation. Yes, it's a fast-food van but the progressive realisation that the only way to deal with the 'panic' is to do something thought of initially as somewhat unthinkable and hapless, is certainly explored; the last resort, 'you'll never see me doing that/in one of those things' notion is tested before becoming the source of humour. One character refers to burger vans as portable 'food poisoning', before succumbing to working within one later on.
The van of the title acts as both a physical representation for the nucleus of the two leads' study, but also as a cinematic space in which it is able to play out. When we first encounter the van, it is located in a desolate and sorry place; a place that sees its characters struggle to push their way through all the other hazards around it just to catch a glimpse. The van is broken, worn-out and decrepit it's seen better days. But the van is transformed; it is updated and goes through a process of modernity before, in time, is back up and running and solving the characters' problems. The process the van goes through is similar to that of the main characters, as these beaten and well-worn individuals whom have seen better days suddenly becoming success stories again; garnering a final day in the sun.
But if The Van is supposed to be a comedy, blending in the harsh and realistic working class life of terrace house living; cramped conditions; redundancy and frustrations with one's overall life with what is, I think, supposed to be a 'feel-good' approach; then it's not a terribly funny one. One of the film's stranger scenes applies a very visceral sense of humour whilst exploiting what little knowledge these perceived men in crisis actually know about the kitchen 'space'; that being when Larry scolds himself whilst trying to deep fry fish and fry eggs, with the fat popping and jumping up onto his forehead and hands thus scolding him. It's an odd scene; a scene in which the male is ill-suited to his culinary surroundings, we are invited to laugh before realising that if he doesn't get back in there, give it another crack and get it right then his life will get doubly worse in an instant.
But The Van has charm, although its charm isn't really enough. It doesn't invite us to laugh at two people on the skids as much as it does invite us to marvel and be entertained at the manner in which they refuse to buckle and hit rock-bottom. The film's humour is too wavy, either settling for scenes in which its characters are under the influence of alcohol or instances in which the burger van is mobbed by a sea of customers all shouting and ordering at once which, and granted, I haven't ordered many meals from many burger vans, but I'm smart enough to know, just doesn't happen. However, you might say its inconsistencies and its broad, uneven feel help in adding to its overall charm of two people just trying to get by; and I wouldn't really begrudge anyone for being fond of it for that.
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