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Review: 'The Butcher Boy' offers inventive, but tasteless, chops

Scenes from April 13, 1998
Web posted at: 5:21 p.m. EDT (2121 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Neil Jordan's new movie, "The Butcher Boy," is a throwback to the good old days of the late '60s and early '70s, when a commercial filmmaker was allowed to actually say what was on his mind in an interesting if somewhat peculiar way. Think of stuff like "Alice's Restaurant" or some of Brian DePalma's nuttier indulgences. Regardless of whether or not you actually liked them, these movies smacked of a thinking, committed presence behind the camera.

"The Butcher Boy," based on the novel by Patrick McCabe in which an unfortunate but bizarrely self-possessed Irish lad grows into a near-psychotic, is a lot like those movies. It's intelligent, often audacious, and pretty much unlike anything released by a big-time director in the past 10 years. I'm sure Jordan is proud of his achievement and the rave reviews he's getting, and good for him, but after a while he just gave me a severe headache.

I haven't felt this rattled in a movie theater since ... well ... never, I guess. I'll tell you one thing, I've had my fill of getting screamed at by prepubescent Irish kids. Regardless of how inventive it may be, the movie's like a cure for St. Patrick's Day.

Eamonn Owens plays 12-year-old Francie Brady, our nominal hero and gregarious host on this adventure that suggests an unholy mating between "The World According to Garp" and "A Clockwork Orange." Francie, in a word, is a motormouth, who shrieks and jokes and boasts his way throughout the movie, talking to everyone and everything that moves, including, at one point, the story's own narrator. Those of you who have a tendency to let your mind drift during your movie viewing should stay at home this time. Just keeping up with Owens' shrill Irish accent is enough give you fits, and I wanted to watch. This is an unavoidable but nevertheless very real problem. You've been warned.

Francie's grown-up self is the narrator, and his musings strongly resemble Malcolm McDowell's accompaniment as Alex in "A Clockwork Orange." The narration as well as the dialogue has the tone of a self-consciously ungodly music hall routine. Francie is supposed to be a life force in his little town (the gossipy women at the local butcher shop seem incapable of detecting that he's a sociopath), but he's up against a horrible domestic life. His father (played nicely by Stephen Rea) is a drunk who likes to beat his son with a belt when he isn't miming "The William Tell Overture" on his trumpet while watching "The Lone Ranger." Francie's long-suffering mother (Aisling O'Sullivan), on the other hand, is stone-cold crazy.

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One of the more enjoyable sequences in the film, believe it or not, deals with her collapsing mental state, a hospital stay during which Francie runs wild, and her return home, at which time she obsessively cooks hundreds of cupcakes because her brother will be visiting soon and he really likes cupcakes. The people in town seem to cut Francie slack for his burden, so he, in keeping with the general sense of eloquent aggravation that permeates the film, sets his sights on destroying Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), the only woman who openly dislikes him. This will include breaking into her home and writing in lipstick all over the walls, then, because she once said that Francie's parents were a couple of pigs, relieving his bowels on her carpet ... to the strains of Francie's own play-by-play, of course.

When this hissy fit gets Francie sent away to a Catholic boys' home, Jordan gets to dabble in scatological dissections of the church, including a masturbating priest and visions of the Virgin Mary, played (in an obvious ploy for some easy publicity) by the professionally unrepentant Sinead O'Connor. I have no problem at all with Jordan's targets, it's just that Francie's overindulgence in bad taste ends up pushing the film from the confrontational to the out-and-out nauseating. There's gags and then there's wanting to gag, but Jordan, in his unrelenting fervor for the material, eventually can't distinguish between the two.

Jordan also sprinkles the film with not-altogether-necessary TV references to the Cold War and atomic bomb testing. The obvious inference, I suppose, is that the harshness of Francie's personality can be traced to a social order in which we can all be fried to a crisp in a nanosecond, but the message seems to appeal more for its grotesque qualities than its incisiveness. That's the word, really. The film is ambitious but so grotesque you feel like handing Jordan a piece of fluff to work on, maybe "That Girl: The Movie." It might do him some good.

"The Butcher Boy" is a trip, all right, but one that I'm sorry I took. There's some shocking, rather graphic violence, as well a certain disdain for all living creatures. I didn't want to dirty my chuckle-maker by laughing. Rated R. 106 often-unintelligible minutes.


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