White Irish Drinkers (Screen Media Films, R)

The dialogue and action couldn’t be more on the nose if the film was intended to be a parody. Sadly, Gray means for us to take it seriously.

 

 

The most distinctive aspect of White Irish Drinkers, written and directed by television veteran John Gray, is the title. Deliberately courting offense is one way to attract attention, but if you can’t back it up with a film worth seeing then it’s all beside the point. Worse, actually, because the people who shell out to see your film will remember you as just another wannabe who thought no one would notice he was ripping off Mean Streets, A Bronx Tale, Saturday Night Fever and innumerable other films that have treated similar material with far more integrity and style.

It’s 1975 and we’re in one of the less glamorous (but not scarily dangerous) neighborhoods of New York City. 18-year-old Brian Leary (Nick Thurston) is at a decision point in his life; should he become a petty thief like his brother Danny (Geoffrey Wigdor), deign to apply for a civil servant job (apparently there for the taking by white guys with a high school diploma back in the day), or betray his class origins by attending college? Danny, you see, is not only smarter than his peers, he’s also a talented artist and one of his pals thinks he could get a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon (in this kind of movie no one ever attends their local public university, it’s always brand name or bust).

Brian’s father (Stephen Lang) is an abusive drunk and his long-suffering mother (Karen Allen) dusts broken appliances before discarding them ("I can’t put something this dirty in the garbage. People will think we’re pigs."). Brian works at a local movie theatre run by a crusty old guy named Whitey (Pieter Riegert) who confidently declares that The Rocky Horror Picture Show "will run a week and never be heard from again." While he’s out drinking at the neighborhood pub with his buddies a pretty girl (Leslie Murphy) catches Brian’s eye and, guess what, she already knows there’s a big world out there. If there are any stereotypes left out of this film I can’t think what they are.

The dialogue and action in White Irish Drinkers couldn’t be more on the nose if the film was intended to be a parody. Sadly, Gray means for us to take it seriously. It’s too bad, because the film does manage a few moving scenes (largely thanks to Karen Black, who creates real depth in her character), but for the most part it’s grindingly conventional when it’s not absolutely preposterous.

If you’re in need of a nostalgia fix White Irish Drinkers is awash in pop culture references (black light paintings, big shirt collars) to help fulfill your cravings. But even this aspect of the film seems to have been planned with the assistance of a pocket guide to New York City in the 1970s subtitled, "How to impress people who aren’t very smart." Case in point, we see someone reading not just the New York Daily News, but the Daily News of Oct. 30, 1975, and Gray makes sure we can read the famous headline: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."

The title comes from a bit of dialogue in which one of Brian’s pals rejects an offer of pot by declaring that it’s not their "tradition." "We don’t do smoke. We don’t do pills. We don’t do needles. We are white Irish drinkers. We drink!" It’s a stereotype put forth as an element of self-definition by a particular character who is clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed, but it’s not rejected by the others in the room. Too bad Gray didn’t follow up with more consideration of the negative effects of defining yourself not by what you are but by what you aren’t—and the attitude that any variation from what you see as your tradition is disgusting beyond consideration. That attitude harms everyone, not just the few outsiders who don’t fit the mold, and it has probably fostered more prejudice than any other single force with the possible exception of organized religion. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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