Intermission moves at a headlong pace and shifts gears between light-hearted caper film, romantic comedy and gritty working-class drama. Director John Crowley tries to juggle a little too much, and at times his fingers slip and a stray theme bonks him on the head. But Intermission brings great spirit to its portrayal of many memorable personalities, and if we can forgive the characters when they contradict themselves, we can forgive the movie as well.
The film begins with tough, intense Lehiff (Colin Farrell) chatting up a simple shop girl until something unexpected takes us completely off-guard. To be more specific would spoil the first of the film's many surprising switches in tone, but the scene establishes that casual flirting can go hand-in-hand with startling cruelty. Intermission asserts that every human transaction, from trivial encounters to long-lasting marriages, has the potential for great pain and great tenderness.
In Intermission, characters set off chain reactions, as one bumps into another, and simply keeping them straight provides part of the challenge and the fun. Disgruntled supermarket employee John (Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later) breaks up with his girlfriend Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald). His genuine love for her makes him regret his ill-conceived action, but she moves in with adulterous bank manager Sam (Michael McElhatton). Sam's spurned wife Noeleen (Deirdre O'Kane) seeks a man who can restore her shattered esteem and falls into the arms of love-lorn Oscar (David Wilmot) -- who happens to be John's best friend.
For the first half-hour, Intermission feels like a memory exercise: "Hey, that's the same clerk with the crappy attitude from the earlier scene!" The film follows the template of Robert Altman, the master of the sprawling ensemble movie, and fortunately Crowley and scripter Mark O'Rowe establish roles and conflicts quickly enough that we seldom lose our bearings.
We see the starts and stops of several love affairs, but the film shows a surprising fascination with violence. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere: We see a mother and daughter with blood on their faces, and flashback to a terrifying bus crash. A human-interest TV producer (Tomas O'Suilleabhain), eager to report on darker content, takes up with brawling police detective Lynch (Colm Meaney). Lynch is intoxicated by his own badass self-image, posing before the producer's camera and making Hollywood declarations about "the kind of justice I'm questing."
Several times we see women get bloody or beaten, but they're not just victims of the men. When Noeleen discovers a penchant for rough sex, at first it's treated like a joke, but increasingly her passion is exposed as misdirected rage at her husband. The film suggests that violence, emotional and otherwise, begets violence, and the most reckless and bloodthirsty suffer the consequences.
Many of the film's jokes rely on scatological content. Early in the film Oscar suffers from impotence when attempting to masturbate. Excrement pops up as a repeated topic of discussion, and Lynch intimidates Lehiff by literally pissing on his shoes in a pub men's room.
But it's Intermission's bittersweet moments that stick with you the most. Shirley Henderson brings a wounded sensitivity to the role of Dierdre's gloomy sister who has a mustache problem and is prone to peer warily from her hooded sweatshirt. Cillian Murphy gives John a boyish sincerity, particularly when he realizes that he really loves Dierdre and may have ruined their relationship.
Intermission is so filled with both misguided humor and genuinely smart jokes that it probably qualifies more as a comedy than any other genre. It doesn't dare the big-picture ambitions of Altman's Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, but Intermission seldom bores or disappoints us, either. In tracing the myriad connections between its characters, Intermission never takes a break.
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