Waking Ned Divine

Winning the lottery is such a pervasive fantasy that stories depicting its downside are laced with gleeful, self-righteous schadenfreude. Money is the root of all evil, say the envious observers of these lucky few -- that's why friendships and families simply unravel when the windfall hits.

Waking Ned Devine will surely displease those naysayers to no end. This good-natured film, the assured debut of writer-director Kirk Jones, shows the residents of a small Irish town who are actually drawn closer together by a winning lottery ticket.

In the idyllic coastal community of Tully Moore, so many of the inhabitants have reached their golden years that it has come to resemble a retirement village. It's just another fact of life that these no-nonsense people understand all too well: To lead a more prosperous life, most young people leave. Those who stay are the rural diehards who treasure their way of life and manage to get by.

When the lottery drawing plays on television Saturday night, Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) is glued to the set in a familiar ritual of fantasy. He comes up empty-handed for the hundredth time, but this drawing is different: Jackie learns that someone in Tully Moore has actually won the lottery.

He springs into action and, with the aid of his doubting wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) and his eager best friend Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly), Jackie plots what he believes to be a cunning plan to both uncover the winner -- who has remained frustratingly anonymous -- and get into his or her good graces. But, as with so many of his supposedly cunning plans, Jackie comes up empty-handed, until he heads out to the isolated home of the elderly Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh) and makes a discovery that will alter everyone's future.

There's Ned, seated absolutely still in front of his television set, clutching the winning ticket in a hand already frozen by rigor mortis. He died with a smile on his face. He also signed the back of his ticket, which prompts the ever-conniving Jackie to hatch a new scheme: to pass Michael off as Ned Devine so they could collect the winnings.

At this point, Kirk Jones pulls a fascinating switch himself. In Waking Ned Devine, Jones never gives in to the excessive whimsy that so often sinks this type of story populated with colorful smalltown eccentrics, instead incorporating a sly humor that serves the characters well.

So when Jackie decides to include the whole town in the scam, Kirk Jones raises the comedic stakes to match the financial ones. By the time Jones hits his comic crescendo -- an unforgettable visual gag involving a telephone booth -- he has made fraud feel like a joyous celebration of community.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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