ARTS

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January 6, 2006

Neil Jordan dishes out familiar themes, but this is no Breakfast of champions

It is perhaps most helpful to think of Breakfast on Pluto as a prequel to The Crying Game, the vastly superior 1992 drama also directed by Neil Jordan. As in his earlier film, Jordan sets his story in a politically charged Ireland, shoehorns in pop hits from the ’50s and ’60s, and features a transgendered character in a key role. But unlike that contemporary classic, Pluto never forms a cohesive whole.

Cillian Murphy plays “Kitten” Brady, who also goes by Patrick or Patricia, depending on who’s asking. The illegitimate child of a priest (played by a sleep-walking Liam Neeson) and a poor parlormaid, he spends his young adult life in search of the mother he never knew, who has been “swallowed up” by the big city. In this case, that city is London. (And hey, isn’t Match Point playing in the theater next door?)

But Kitten begins his journey in Dublin, which gives Jordan plenty of time to showcase marches and explosions that never emotionally resonate with the viewer. The film is oddly apolitical, with tragedy functioning mainly to get Kitten from point A to point B. In The Crying Game, this detachment worked, because we cared primarily about the relationship between Dil (Jaye Davidson) and Jimmy (Stephen Rea). But Breakfast on Pluto lacks the definite sense of time and space that, curiously, makes a film truly universal.

Rea pops up here, too, as one of Kitten’s several suitors, Bertie—arguably the cruelest. But by this point in the film, we are completely frustrated with Kitten’s lack of agency; it seems all he does is run into attractive men who want to whisk him away to a different life. There’s Rea, dysfunctional musician Billy Hatchet (played by real-life rocker Gavin Friday), and various suitors in the clubs and on the streets. Even Kitten’s father (and Father) swoops in at the most convenient moment to save the situation from becoming too dire. Compelling drama it isn’t.

I’m a sucker for Rea, but it’s Murphy who’s been garnering the acclaim for his “courageous” turn as Kitten. I don’t buy it. Like Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, there’s something fundamentally ostentatious about his performance, which indicates that the novelty of playing the opposite sex hasn’t totally worn off. I was particularly disappointed with a scene in which Bertie hypnotizes Kitten as part of a staged magic show. We have every reason to believe Kitten is actually hypnotized, but Murphy’s eyes don’t even follow the pendulum. (And when a performance brings to mind such technicalities, something’s wrong.)

Jordan makes a terrible artistic choice by including over 35 title cards throughout the film to introduce different segments of Kitten’s life. The word “segment” should be taken here very loosely—the scenes follow logically in sequence, rarely making a huge jump in space or time, thus rendering the title cards extraneous and distracting. Imagine having to read each chapter heading while watching a DVD. Ugh.

Jordan throws in other cutesy flourishes: the chirping of bluebirds is subtitled; Kitten prances around as a spy in a dream sequence; a building explodes, then comes together again in reverse. With stronger material, these frills could be fun. But in Breakfast on Pluto, they only emphasize the faults in the story. The surrealist touches are part of why Pluto lacks cohesion. It’s difficult to feel the consequences of cause and effect in a world that seems so randomly constructed.

Too often, Jordan relies on musical cues when he should be hitting emotional ones. His song choices aren’t even inspired—just what we’ve come to expect from a filmmaker who isn’t working hard enough to honestly represent the era: “Children of the Revolution,” “Sugar Baby Love,” “You’re Breaking My Heart.” At least Cameron Crowe chooses some obscure bands for his soundtracks-masquerading-as-movies.

It isn’t all bad news. Pluto does a fine job conveying the bond between Kitten and his childhood friends Laurence, Charlie, and Irwin. They are the freaks of their small town, which doesn’t have much patience for differences like Kitten’s cross-dressing or Irwin’s Down’s syndrome. In the most inspiring scene in the film, the more “normal” Laurence and Charlie decline to enter a town dance after Kitten and Irwin are shunned. Instead, they hitch a ride with a group of bad-ass motorcyclists and end up having a hell of a lot more fun.

Murphy and Neeson may be ho-hum, but Ruth Negga does good work as an adult Charlie, who depends on her makeshift family perhaps more than she should. She takes stock situations—the dangerous boyfriend, the unplanned pregnancy—and makes them feel new, which is more than the film in general accomplishes.

We’ve seen this coming-of-age story many, many times before. Jordan and Pat McCabe (who adapted the screenplay from his novel) think the transgendered angle is enough to make it fresh, but they’ve sorely miscalculated. It’s easy to see them lumping this together with Brokeback Mountain, but Ang Lee’s film really does present a specific situation for the first time. Except for geographically, Kitten wouldn’t be out of place in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Breakfast on Pluto isn’t bad, merely boring. The title cards, while annoying, fulfill a valuable purpose: gauging how much of the film remains.

This is why I recommend watching Pluto as a prequel to The Crying Game. It actually kind of works. After Kitten rides off into the sunset, he becomes a hairdresser, changes his name to Dil, and morphs into Jaye Davidson. He meets Jody (played by Forest Whitaker) and eventually dallies with Stephen Rea, who now goes by Fergus but has a better haircut.

Neil Jordan is more than capable of great work. The man’s genius may be part of his problem: He doesn’t have time to make all of the movies in his head, so he makes something like Breakfast on Pluto, a comedy-drama-musical hybrid that engages none of those parts convincingly. Seriously, dude, you should think about that Crying Game prequel. After all, you’re already halfway there.