I've often been perplexed over the years when hearing British comedians taking shots at Belgium, dissing it as a dingy little jerkwater full of backward rubes. I never could reconcile the mockery with my limited knowledge of the place: good beer, diplomacy, waffles, Eddy Merckx, what's not to like? And then I saw The Misfortunates, and if there's even a milligram of truth in this rowdy, disheveled, but very entertaining dark comedy, then all of those nasty jokes make a bit more sense.
The film casts a knowing squint on a particular breed of Belgian rowdies, a grungy European equivalent of rednecks; loutish, hard-drinking party animals, convinced that the finer things in life come in a pint glass, or at least as the result of draining a few dozen of them. The protagonist is young Gunther Strobbe (Kenneth Vanbaeden), a bright kid unlucky enough to be raised in a family full of drunken degenerate gamblers, thieves, layabouts and hoodlums, with funny nicknames like "Beefcake." Gunther's dad and raucous brothers are generally a clan of mullet-headed cads on a perpetual rampage, but these dudes can't be all bad, as they worship Roy Orbison.
Strobbe is subjected to all sorts of boozy debauchery, including cross-dressing, skirt chasing, colostomy bags and naked bicycle races. Occasionally the clowning starts to spill over into violence and real peril, revealing buried emotional geysers. Just as the chaos begins to tire, the film flash-forwards to the present and sees Gunther as an adult struggling to break through as a novelist, which lends The Misfortunates a warm richness and bittersweet finish, just like a fine Belgian beer.
Opens Friday, July 30, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238; burtontheatre.com.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].