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Brooklyn (2015)

Too Clover By Half

Irish luck is real. How else to explain all the Awards Season attention being heaped on Brooklyn, director John Crowley's Maybelline commercial of an immigrant drama? Every so often, a film that is all pedigree and zero substance sneaks into the Best Picture race. 2015 gave us two, and while it's interesting to note the phenomenon, having to watch these dull Oscar Bait non-entities feels like the opposite of finding a four-leaf clover.

In 2014, author Nick Hornby and cinematographer Yves Bélanger helped bring the self-discovery novel Wild to the big screen. The result was a gritty, intimate portrait of a troubled young woman who carves a path to reinvention by traversing the harsh American wilderness. Hornby and Bélanger re-team on Brooklyn, an adaptation of Colm Toibin's acclaimed novel about a young girl who leaves Ireland in the 1950s, seeking opportunity in America. The film looks great, and the dialogue is sufficiently zippy, but the underlying story is so thin, and the protagonist such a product of thematically incongruous scenes, that it's difficult to grab a narrative foothold.

As Ellis, an Irish teen who wins a Catholic sponsorship to live and work in New York, Saoirse Ronan is a largely blank canvas onto which the audience is invited to paste its assumptions about the kinds of obstacles such a character might have faced, based on the era's now-passé attitudes about gender, race, and social mobility. Instead of actually pitting Ellis against anything more than seasickness and a dead-sister plot device (Spoiler?), Brooklyn reduces the immigrant struggle to a gender-swapped Archie Comics storyline--minus the arc or personality.

Clocking in at just under an hour-forty-five, the film takes Ellis on a journey of the heart usually reserved for the kinds of psychos that noble protagonists are bred to defeat. Ellis goes from "I'm excited to see America" to "This was a mistake" to "This cute boy makes everything better" to "Things will really be okay now, since I'm married" to "My sister's dead, I've got to go home" to "This local boy's cute, maybe I should forget What's-His-Face" to "Now I remember why I left this dump" to "I'm glad my husband doesn't care that I never returned his letters during the six weeks I was gone, 'cause being married sure is great."

Keep in mind, these are interpretations culled from forty minutes of middle-distance stares, which Ronan substitutes for a nuanced performance.* Paired with Michael Brook's intrusive yet unremarkable score, the sustained, heavy-lidded, off-camera looks make Brooklyn the most mistakenly-convinced-of-its-own-inner-life slog I've sat through since Drive. Co-stars Domhnall Gleeson and Jim Broadbent liven things up a bit, but they enter and exit the film with the airy abruptness of CliffsNotes bullet points.

In their absence, we get a hodgepodge of bizarre players and scenarios that feel like an HBO Writers' Room whiteboard with "50s-Era Pilot Ideas" scribbled at the top. Ellis stays at a boarding home run by an elderly Catholic prude and inhabited by two Wicked Stepsister stand-ins, a tough-big-sister-type, and, eventually, a newer new girl that everyone is free to pick on (including Ellis). Then there's Ellis' stalker-ish Italian boyfriend who, as played by Emory Cohen, struck me as the Dodgers-obsessed love child of James Franco and Andrew McCarthy, with an Off-Broadway-Brando aesthetic. This guy has a Capital "I" Italian FamilyTM, of course, which includes a wascally younger brother that speaks fluent Olsen Twin.** Fortunately, Brooklyn spends the least amount of time in the big-city department store that employs Ellis--possibly because Rooney Mara was soaking up all the 50s New York subtext three counters over.

Brooklyn is a glamorous movie, and that's the last thing it should be. There's nary a speck of dirt, hair out of place, or non-soap conflict to be found in this lavishly lit, exquisitely costumed, white fantasy of ostensible mid-century struggle. This is Cinderella meets The Bridges of Madison County. Having not read Toibin's book, I can't speak to the degree to which Hornby and Crowley did or didn't stray from the source material. I can say that Brooklyn feels like a film that may have gone so far out of its way to stray from convention that it wound up being wholly unrelatable in its blandness. It's no wonder some people want to build walls around this country: Brooklyn makes the immigrant experience seem like a fairy-tale cakewalk.

*For the record, I am a great admirer of Ronan's work, which is why it bothers me to see her talents squandered in such a lifeless role.

**Full House era.

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