Rory O'Shea Was Here

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/18/05 14:37:44

"A wheelchair-accessible 'Cuckoo's Nest'"
3 stars (Average)

A couple of years ago, I (and very few others) saw a very sly and funny movie called “Pumpkin,” in which Christina Ricci played a shallow sorority girl who found her entire view of the world forever altered when she met and befriended a physically and mentally challenged guy that she was to help coach in the Special Olympics as part of a Sorority of the Year contest. The joke was that she kept reading every thing he said and did, no matter how mundane, as the kind of human poetry that can only be achieved (at least in the movies) by the afflicted; only in the final shot of the film, after she had forsaken everything to be with him, did it begin to dawn on her that he was not some kind of noble sage, but just an ordinary person with more than his share of problems. I found myself flashing on that film a lot while watching the new melodrama “Rory O’Shea Was Here”; like the Christina Ricci character, it stubbornly insists on the profound insight and humanity of its disabled characters without bothering to come up with a screenplay that allows them to demonstrate those alleged characteristics in any meaningful way.

Utilizing the template of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the film tells the story of two young handicapped men residing in a “special” (to quote the sign outside) facility–the shy, CP-afflicted Michael (Steven Robertson) and the brash hell-raiser Rory (James McAvoy) who comes in like a bat out of hell and butts heads with the lead authority figure (Brenda Fricker). Because Rory is the only person who can understand what he is saying (pretty unlikely in such a facility), Michael bonds with the newcomer and they successfully petition to live out in the real world. Complications arise when they hire a comely lass (Romola Garai) to serve as their assistant; Michael begins to fall in love with her without he quite catching on until the inevitable moment of public humiliation. At the same time, Rory continues to act feisty as all get out but even he has a tragic secret that surfaces before long.

In a film that was genuinely interested in its characters, such melodramatic plot twists wouldn’t be required. Unfortunately, for all of its noble intentions, it plays more along the level of an after-school special and the filmmakers seem to think that just by having its handicapped characters indulging in such “shocking” behavior as drinking, swearing and drooling over girls, they have done all the required work. “Million Dollar Baby” took the time to create a trio of compelling characters so that when the plot finally kicked in, it had a genuine impact because the events were happening to people that we genuinely cared about. Here, the three leads are good enough but they are all hampered by a screenplay that requires them to behave in certain ways only because if they don’t, the screenplay cannot move from point A to point B.

Case in point: the device of having Rory being the only person who can understand what Michael is saying. This, of course, requires Rory repeating everything that Michael says for the benefit of others–however, he does the same thing in scenes where it is only the two of them and both presumably know what is being said. Of course, he is still translating to allow viewers to understand Michael’s dialogue–a frankly theatrical device that doesn’t quite jibe with the allegedly “realistic” surroundings and points out just how artificial the rest of the proceedings are. A more thoughtful film might have taken the risk of avoiding this device and trusting viewers to be smart enough to be able to follow along.

As you have no doubt heard, several groups representing the physically handicapped have protested Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” because of a third act that, in their eyes, supposedly suggests that being paralyzed is such a horrifying thing that death is a far more palatable alternative than life in a wheelchair. (Of course, they have said nary a peep about “The Sea Inside,” which tells a similar story but which, alas, lacks a name on the level of Clint Eastwood’s to form a protest around.) In an uncanny bit of timing, “Rory O’Shea Was Here” arrives with a message that is presumably more up the alley of the protestors–that the paralyzed are people too and they can be just as much of a lust for life as anybody else. Of course, a movie needs more than just a message to succeed and I suspect that if they compared the two films simply on the level of artistic merit, even the most vociferous of the anti-Eastwood brigade might have to grudgingly admit that he at least made a better movie.

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