Ethnic pride is part and parcel of American society. So much so that people drop the "-American" in daily conversation. Filmmaker Sean Lackey reminds us in The Yank, his farcical take on cultural identity, that there is a difference between Irish and Irish-American, Korean and Korean-American – just about any nationality and its hyphenated-American spawn.
Lackey multitasked on The Yank, writing, directing and acting. He plays the male lead, Tom Murphy, a union painter in Cleveland.
An awkward opening scene at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has Tom getting dumped by his girlfriend over his obsession with Irish band U2, making an ass of himself and getting thrown out – but not before costing curator Vanessa (Niki Spiridakos) her job.
Back at the pub, Tom's friend Marty (Allen Kellogg) introduces his Irish bride and says they are getting married in Ireland. The best man will be Tom, and the maid of honor will be – shock! – Vanessa, who walked in moments before.
When a movie telegraphs its destination in the second scene, it's incumbent upon the filmmaker to make sure the audience remains entertained. Somehow – despite the multitasking and despite this being his first big film project – Lackey pulls it off!
The forced proximity of the wedding cycle keeps Tom and Vanessa together through pre-wedding festivities in Cleveland, the ceremony in Dublin and the free time afterward in County Clare on Ireland's West Coast.
The thing about Tom is: His family really, really celebrates its Irish heritage. Never mind that fact that neither he nor his parents (comedy veteran Fred Willard and Maryann Nagel) has been to the Emerald Isle. Willard runs with his role, hosting a Six-Months-'Til-St. Patrick's Day party and gleefully making up Irish and Irish-American history.
Tom's folks not only embrace every Irish-American stereotype but also pressure him to marry an Irish girl. Willard waxes hysterically on this over lunch with Tom's friends Marty, Fred (Kevin Farley, Chris Farley's brother), Steve (Cody Dove) and Ricardo (Spencer Jay Kim). Much of that deli scene was improvised, Lackey said during a Q&A at the 2015 Sedona International Film Festival. That's not surprising; Lackey met Willard while doing improv comedy with Second City's Cleveland troupe.
Tom's mother is less tolerable. She is a bit of a harpy and is rude to Vanessa – "that Greek girl" – when she visits the Murphy home.
As for Vanessa, a Greek-American who befriended the bride while actually living in Ireland for a time, she admits to Tom that she left a really serious boyfriend because her Greek father didn't approve. Spiridakos plays her with a wonderful range of emotions – from exasperated to amused to intrigued.
Arriving in Dublin, the boys' first stop is the Guinness brewery, where the guys – particularly Fred – are put out to discover that the tour includes just one free draft.
Marty then drops off Tom at a bed and breakfast that's no pastoral idyll. Irish-born Clevelander Derdriu Ring is hysterical as the over-the-top, domineering innkeeper who appears to see, and treat, Tom like her estranged son, who found a job far away on other side of Ireland.
By this point, Tom is realizing that Ireland isn't what Irish-Americans in Cleveland believe. If any doubts remain, they are erased when he looks up a distant relative, cattleman Fintan McGuire, played by Colm Meaney (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, Layer Cake and Under Siege). Over the course of a few days, Fintan helps separate the reality from the fantasy of Ireland.
"It's a melting pot, like all of Europe," Lackey said in Sedona. "But a lot of Americans don't realize that." For him, the tool to make that point was a joke, not a sledgehammer. "The whole movie is a farce. The message is there, but it's a farce."
At one point, Tom thinks he might have found his Irish lass in Molly Sweeney, the vivacious clerk at a store he visits. Molly is portrayed by Lynette Callaghan, who appears in only a few scenes but steals them all. But she can't steal Tom's heart; his attempts to woo her are distracted by his emerging feelings for Vanessa. He does make Molly mad, though – sparking a confrontation at the pub with her intimidating brother. A brawl appears inevitable, but Farley's impulsive Fred, of all people, steps in to defuse the situation.
Even while satirizing ethnicity, "You don't want to give in to the stereotype," Lackey said.
In the end, Tom wins over Vanessa without even realizing it – through a seemingly unrelated act that goes to the core of who he is.
Lackey filmed not only the first half of the movie in greater Cleveland but also many of the indoor scenes set in Ireland. Like many states, Ohio offers financial incentives for filmmakers. On top of that, in Lackey's case, Cleveland officials went out of their way to help a local guy. They enabled him to film at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on blocked off city streets – even on the tarmac at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
"They wanted to help," Lackey said. "I just asked." Usually, he said, they gave him what he wanted for free – no small consideration for an independent filmmaker.
For the Irish exteriors, Lackey and cinematographer Keith Nickoson do a nice job of showcasing the beauty of County Clare, where towns and countryside extend from central Ireland west to the coast. They use sweeping shots of the beaches and cliffs in comparison and contrast to the movie's opening shot, a flyover shot of downtown Cleveland from Lake Erie.
The Yank, which was named Best Comedic Feature at the 2014 Manhattan Film Festival, is a good-natured romcom with a message about broadening one's horizons and managing expectations.
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