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Zonad
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by Jay Seaver

"He's come for your nubile young girls - and beer."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 BOSTON SCIENCE FICTION FILM FESTIVAL: If "Zonad" ever started to make a lick of sense for even one second, it probably wouldn't work. Fortunately, filmmakers John & Kieran Carney are well aware of that, and while they have managed to put something resembling a human heart in their movie, they are able to do so without giving up on being goofy.

It's a fine night for stargazing in a small Irish town, and there's an impressive comet passing by. On the way home, lovely schoolgirl Jenny Cassidy (Janice Byrne) makes it quite clear to her boyfriend Guy (Rory Keenan) that she's quite ready, but he refuses to take the hint, so she winds up going back home with her parents (Geoff Minogue and Donna Dent) and brother (Kevin Maher), where they find a man in a red jumpsuit and helmet (Simon Delaney) passed out on the floor. When someone says he must be a spaceman, he runs with it, calling himself "Zonad" and saying he's on a scouting expedition to Earth. People continue to believe it, so he enjoys the town's hospitality - at least, until Guy starts getting annoyed at the attention Zonad and Jenny are giving each other, and another visitor (David Pearse) arrives.

The premise is silly, naturally, which makes the balancing act that the Carneys and their cast pull off fairly impressive. The story requires the entire town to be unusually trusting, but it doesn't play as pointing at the stupid villagers and laughing. There's a parodic early-sitcom vibe to it, the same kind of orderly innocence, except that those old comedies didn't have the gleeful raunch we see from the beginning here (and this isn't Pleasantville - Jenny doesn't need anybody to tell her about sex). There's a bit of parody of sci-fi/sitcom/eccentric-village tropes in there, but not contempt.

As broad and sometimes crude as the humor is, it's more jovial than nasty - at least, depending on your tolerance for guys lusting after teen-age girls (in the film's defense, Jenny, Guy, and the other teenagers look at least seventeen, and are played by adults as exaggerated fantasies). The jokes are packed tight and get goofier as the movie goes along instead of slowing down so that characters can be shown to be Learning Important Lessons. It's a delightfully anarchic approach - nothing is out of bounds, but the Carneys never seem to be smug about how they are going past certain boundaries, and the especially cartoonish last act helps there.

So does Simon Delaney. He first played the title character in the Carneys' short-film version six years earlier, and he's very good at having Zonad give the "I can't believe this is working" vibe without breaking character. He's a thoroughly disreputable case, but there's just enough kid trying to get away with something and not really meaning harm to his performance to keep the movie from getting dark or mean. Janice Byrne is also a stitch as the horny (but a bit short of trashy) schoolgirl, and Rory Keenan is hilarious as her utterly clueless boyfriend. He's helped along by David Murray as the butler who has more or less raised him, a source of constant dry wit.

As much as Zonad is something of a goof, it's not sloppy in the way many pokes at its target genres are. Watching the title character try and get out of the situation he's in is fun because there's a plot that actually trips him up that makes sense by the rules of this film, for instance. The movie seldom jokes about how cheap or fake things are, and the two musical numbers are fun, as well (John Carney did direct Once, so maybe this is a thing for him). The only notable negative is the ending, which is perhaps a bit condescending in a way that the rest of the movie had otherwise avoided.

And, to be fair, it's tough to avoid the point-and-laugh with this story. The Carneys do a good job, though, packing a lot of laughs into 75 minutes and just as much charm.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20500&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/24/11 12:09:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Traverse City Film Festival For more in the 2010 Traverse City Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2010 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

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