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Friends recycles romantic cliches in an Irish setting

Jack Foley (Chris O'Donnell) must decide between Nan (Saffron Burrows), Bernadette (Minnie Driver), Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe), three small town Irish girls who go off to college in Dublin in search of adventures and romance in Circle of Friends.

Circle of Friends

Directed by Pat O'Connor.

Written by Andrew Davies.

Starring Chris O'Donnell, Minnie Driver, Colin Firth, Geraldine O'Rawe, Saffron Burrows, and Alan Cumming.

Sony Cheri.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

It seems that some movies, no matter how charming they set out to be, somehow come off exceedingly flat. The Hollywood studio system churns out scores of light-hearted romantic coming-of-age dramas each year - most get buried at the box office, most for the reason that they're not noteworthy enough to get a box office draw. The film Circle of Friends is set in Ireland, and it features American actor Chris O'Donnell, but otherwise it typifies formulaic romances that try too hard to please an audience and fail to explore their own characters.

The story is fairly simple. It's the late fifties, and Bernadette (Minnie Driver) and Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) have grown up in the same small Irish town since birth: "Bennie" with a traditional family in the clothing business, parentless Eve raised by nuns in a local convent. They leave together for college in Dublin and immediately are greeted by Nan (Saffron Burrows), an old friend from their childhood. Nan introduces them to Jack (Chris O'Donnell), the reputed "most popular guy in school" and a star on the rugby team. Bennie and Jack exchange knowing glances: They eventually get to know each other.

Meanwhile, Bennie must commute from home, where her parents keep her under their loving, stifling roof and make surreptitious plans for her to court (and possibly wed) a clerk in the family clothing store, Sean (Alan Cumming), a character who looks as if he just crawled out of the slime. Naturally, conflicts develop around Bennie and her home town, her self-deprecating sense that she is not "pretty" enough to woo Jack, and her burgeoning sexual instincts (in relation to her devout Catholicism).

There's always the promise of some charming scene or humorous payoff, but the story is bland and the characters' motives are totally predictable. Sean is immediately depicted as an unlikeable, villainous character, but neither director Pat O'Connor or screenwriter Andrew Davies decide to give him any depth - he's simply out to feed his monetary and carnal lusts. Both Jack and Bennie are made for each other, with sophomoric ideals and hearts of gold, but they are kept apart by the tyranny or jealousy of others. And Nan, a beautiful girl who beds a wealthy, prominent Protestant man (Colin Firth) but is spurned when she discovers that she is pregnant, seals her fate not as tragic heroine but as femme fatale, seducing Jack and then leading him to think the baby is his.

I'm probably giving too much away, but I think I would have felt better knowing the mannered plot manipulation beforehand rather than groan my way through the movie as I remained several steps ahead of the characters in the movie, realizing what each person would do next. In this respect, the vile Sean is the most interesting character in the movie, the only one whose slimy self-assuredness seems to carry any weight. We're meant to identify with Jack and Bennie, but more often than not I got bored with those characters. The actors seem to alternate between sunny or pained expressions, according to their mood of their characters. To their credit, lead actors O'Donnell and Driver infuse their characters with vivacity and wide-eyed innocence, but that doesn't make them any less annoying.

Circle of Friends plays like a college-age soap opera for hopeless romantics. The setting of the film in late '50s Ireland is the boldest part of the production, and it would have been interesting to see the conflict between life and religion explored a bit further. Instead, those references seems only vestigial, just like the movie.