As good as Nick Thurston is, he’s not enough to save the film from director John Gray
TV director John Gray shoots from the heart with “White Irish Drinkers,” a coming-of-age drama set in the filmmaker’s native Brooklyn during the 1970’s.
The milieu is a working-class neighborhood where high school grads chase sanitation jobs that pay a whopping $9,000 a year, plus benefits.
The cast is the Lear family of four: Paddy, a brutal dockworker given to drunken bouts of rage; Margaret, his put-upon wife; Danny, a street punk; and black sheep Brian, a sensitive artist.
A recent high school graduate with no direction, Brian is at a crossroads. To escape his father’s angry outbursts, he slips into the basement where he secretly draws pictures of city scenes.
One day, the theater where he works as an usher unexpectedly books the Rolling Stones for one night only. When Brian’s hot-headed older brother, Danny, finds out, he tries to use Brian to rob the joint and take off with the money.
Brian must choose between his big brother, who shielded him from his father’s angry fists, and his employer, a kind, old theater owner; a surrogate dad.
Oh, and did I mention he’s an artist?
Much is made of this point, such as when he draws a portrait of a girl in the condensation on a barroom window. Conversation stops as everyone turns to admire Brian’s work. It’s meant to be an affecting moment, a sensual come-on, and it plays like a Budweiser commercial on Valentine’s Day.
We are meant to be drawn to Brian because he’s sensitive, artistic and good. We are meant to be repelled by his father because he is bitter, violent and bad. Such polemics undercut the emotional truth of “White Irish Drinkers,” leaving it with little dramatic punch.
Stephen Lang (“Avatar”) plays Paddy Leary with menacing stature and a stone-cold conscience.
It is an effective performance but the role is one-dimensional, and despite his crying at a funeral and a drunken anecdote or two, he is an ogre and little more.
Karen Allen is subtle and effective as Brian’s mother; a fine performance in a likewise one-dimensional supporting part. She experiences an epiphany when she discovers what Brian has been doing in the basement day after day.
When she gives him a paint kit a few scenes later, what is meant to be an uplifting moment plays as stale and saccharine.
Geoff Wigdor, as big brother Danny, is a chip off the old block; as pugnacious as his old man. It is a pivotal role and Wigdor swings for the fence, but grounds out with a scenery-chewing portrayal.
A soap opera veteran, Wigdor shamelessly bellows in a Brooklyn accent and struts around like a “Lords of Flatbush” reject.
His scenes with Nick Thurston, as Brian, seem out of synch as the two actors never find the right chemistry for what is essentially the heart of the film.
Thurston, however, is a strong anchor to the cast, firmly holding down what is essentially a TV movie plagued by simplistic moralizing and wafer-thin caricatures.
As good as Thurston is, he’s not enough to save the film from director John Gray. His movie feels of a time and place, in this case Brooklyn in the seventies, and his characters sometimes even sound like real people. But whatever genuine emotion there might have been in “White Irish Drinkers” feels washed away in clichés and cheap sentiment.
** (out of four)
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