Waking Ned Devine
directed by Kirk Jones
(20th Century Fox, 1998)

No institution is so peculiar to Ireland as the wake, the traditional funeral service at which mourners do their best to rouse the dead with food, drink and song. And no corpse ever had more reason to come back from the dead than did Ned Devine.

For it was on the very night of his death that Ned (Jimmy Keogh), a poor fisherman from the tiny village of Tully More, won the Irish lottery. In fact, it was the lottery that killed him. Or so figures Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen), a longtime friend of Ned who found the body sitting in front of his flickering television, clutching in his fingers the winning ticket.

And that might have been all the world ever knew of Ned, had it not been for a dream in which Ned appeared to Jackie -- a dream Jackie interpreted as a message from the great beyond. Not surprisingly, the message was "Cash in my ticket."

What Jackie goes through to wake Ned Devine is what makes Waking Ned Devine such a rare treat.

Unlike most modern comedies, the humor in Ned Devine is situational rather than stand-up, building through the film to a dark and uproarious providential rescue. That means before we can understand why scamming the Irish lottery is funny, we have to meet nearly half the citizens of Tully More, including Jackie; Annie (Fionnula Flanagan), Jackie's wife's conscience and co-conspirator; Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly), Jackie's best friend and the man chosen for no good reason to impersonate Ned for the lottery inspector; and Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey) the town kvetch, a woman who'd steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes, but only if she couldn't get the eyes.

But Ned Devine is a love story, too, the tale of Pig Finn (James Nesbitt) and the woman (Susan Lynch) who loves him, though not well enough to get past his aroma -- the smell of the pigs that give him his nickname and his livelihood. And you might say it's an action story as well, though the action is pretty much limited to one nude motorcycle chase. Nude, and very funny.

How writer-director Kirk Jones brought together so many disparate threads and tied them into one hilarious knot in barely and hour and a half remains a mystery. That he did so is indisputable: for a small film, Waking Ned Devine has made a big impression on American audiences not used to sitting through a movie without a single special effect.

Part of the trick is the National Geographic-quality cinematography that captures the quaintness of the Irish outback but doesn't make it maudlin. Another part is Shaun Davey's score, which keeps pace with the film and helps to pace it, whether the pipes are low and mournful or the fiddle and bodhran are pushing things on.

Finally, there's the wonderful screen chemistry between Bannen and Kelly, who play Jackie and Michael as a kind of non-animated Wallace and Gromit. I'll let you decide which is which.

Waking Ned Devine isn't for everyone. It requires an irreverent sense of humor, a good ear for Anglo-Irish dialogue and the ability to be moved by simple people caught in the act of making a seemingly simple act very complicated.

A sleeper it was. A yawner it's not.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.

Get the soundtrack, too!