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Movie Review: Waking Ned Devine

By Francisco J. Delatorre

Written and directed by Kirk Jones.

Starring Ian Bannen, David Kelley, Fionnula Flanagan.

One of the most talked about underdogs of 1998 was the spectacular film, A Simple Plan, whose tale of the corruption of the everyman through the prospect of wealth seems like a combination of three existing movies: Shallow Grave, Macbeth, and Fargo. Note that the similarity between these is obvious: Wealth and power can take otherwise amiable people and transform them into monsters, capable of any sort of crime. It is the rejection of this popularly held view that allows the wrinkle-laden Waking Ned Devine to shine through as one of the top films of last year.

Unlike its predecessors, Ned Devine focuses on the community-building aspects of fabulous wealth, and portrays how a large sum of money can in fact bring a group of people together for a common good. It is set in a small town in contemporary Ireland (no more than 60 people) called Tully More, where everyone knows everyone else, and one of whom has won nearly 7 million Irish pounds in the national lottery. The first half-hour centers around Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen), a man whose demeanor seems to defy his obvious senior citizen status, his wife, Annie (Fionnula Flanagan), and his best friend of countless years, Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelley). They embark on a private search for the "lucky sod" who has just become fantastically rich. This quest, and its digressions, leave not only the characters clueless but the audience as well (who have been unwittingly drawn in with a sense of insatiable curiosity), and serves as a device to introduce the other important characters and subplots. We soon find, however, that the winner is an old man by the name of Ned Devine, who died of a heart attack upon seeing that he held the winning ticket.

Jackie and Michael do not intend for a moment to let this money go to waste, so they call upon the rest of the town to help them acquire the money and then divide it equally among them. The plan is simple: Michael will become Ned Devine, and the town will verify this for the officials.

What follows is not so much a story of the plan and its execution as a closer look at character interaction, and how the promise of reward affects the town's sense of community, delving deeper into some of the plots and characters raised in the first half-hour. In fact, the plan itself reaches an ultimately anticlimactic end, though simultaneously producing a touching display of friendship and emotion.

Interestingly enough, the film touches on the notion that it is greed, not money, that is the true destructive force, and that we often lose sight of that fact. The only truly greedy character in the film (the one who decides not to be "part of the team") loses her life through an unforced inevitability a denouement that was both necessary yet surprising, which creates one of the most satisfying and humorous sequences in the film, rich with an exhilarating musical climax.

The film does exhibit some minor weaknesses. Although it does a superb job of challenging the stereotypes of wealth, it does seem to take its ideas a little too far at some points. For example, the relationship between two characters, Maggie and Pig Finn, undergoes some less-than-realistic (although still rather charming) snags, all of which are miraculously resolved with the introduction of the prize money, as if to say that money fixes everything.

Overall, Waking Ned Devine is charming, engaging, and absolutely hilarious. It moves along at a quick pace, driven by an impressive mix of visual and situational humor, and ends before you expect or want it to. I hesitate to compare it with 1997's The Full Monty, as many critics have done, but I have no reservations about calling it one of the best (and, sadly, most overlooked) films of 1998.