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CAPITAL IDEA 'THE VAN,' A FUNNY LOOK AT GRIM JOBLESSNESS

THE BOYS ARE in high spirits. Courtesy of the 1990 World Cup soccer matches, they've been making good money selling burgers, fish, chips and candy bars from their van. They've camped outside the local pub and done a brisk spillout business in hungry drunks as soon as the matches were over.

So, in the flush of success, they drive their van out to the beach, hoping also to catch hungry swimmers and sunbathers ready to part with a punt or two.

A sudden sickening "thunk" under the wheels tells them they've hit something. "Geez, what was it?" asks Bimbo the Driver. His pal Larry looks out the window at the receding animal corpse. "A Jack Russell," he reports with cruelly excessive accuracy. Regret is briefly expressed. Then they laugh merrily and drive on.

If you somehow doubt how secretly subversive a film "The Van" is, don't just take my word for the gallows humor about dead dogs -- consider the cheery anti-capitalist ending, one that no respectable American movie would even dream of trying to get away with.

"The Van" is the third and final film of Irish writer Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy." Alan Parker's "The Commitments" was the most boisterous and, perforce, the most popular. Stephen Frears' "The Snapper," before this, had small-town squalor and meanness down to such a "T" that, frankly, I didn't enjoy watching it much.

Frears' "The Van," also from a Doyle screenplay, is my favorite of the three by far, a terribly funny film about what happens when these two unemployed mates decide to go into the itinerant food short-order business.

The comedy of subversive entrepreneurial adventure is nicely set up by the ashen taste of the first 45 minutes. Everywhere else in movies this summer, fantasy reigns supreme. Not in Roddy Doyleland. Reality rules uber alles.

In those first 45 minutes, Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) joins the ranks of the jobless. His long-unemployed pal, Larry (Colm Meaney), "shows him the ropes": afternoon shows on the telly, golf on public courses in the driving rain, having as many pints as you can stand at the Foxhound Bar and then drunkenly singing old Kingston Trio songs at the top of your lungs.

This is unemployment as a spiritual state, the conversion of one's unsettling suspicion of one's own "uselessness" into a sport -- or, at any rate, a sporting life.

It takes black humor to enjoy figuring out whether two cheap and scrawny cooked chickens equal one Christmas turkey. But the boys are up to it, and miraculously, so are their long-suffering wives.

Bimbo just can't stand it over the long haul. He's a doer. Necessity being the mother of you-know-what (and a mean muthah she is), Bimbo decides to go into the food truck business. He and Larry rescue a filthy, abandoned van and, combining the drive and brains of capitalists and the elbow grease of the working class, they discover that there is money to be made in Ireland despite enforced and widespread "redundancy," even for the likes of them.

A lot of this becomes delightfully funny because we see it after we see the harsh realities of joblessness. We know what these two scruffy entrepreneurs are fighting like blazes not to fall back into, and it makes their adventures in business expansion even funnier. And as I said, it makes that ending wondrously subversive.

A lot of pints are quaffed in this film. (At one point, one of the boys, hung over, actually turns down a morning can of beer. "Uhhhh," he says in revulsion, lying on the grass. "I couldn't take the bubbles.") And a lot of American pop culture is used for ironic flavoring. (After one good night, Meaney starts to sing "I Was Born Under a Wandering Star" like Lee Marvin in "Paint Your Wagon.")

The music is by Eric Clapton.

"The Van" is funny and charming in almost every way. And if you ponder the ending a bit, it's a good deal more than that, too.

MOVIE
The Van

Rating:*** 1/2 Colm Meaney and Donal O'Kelly as two cheery lunkheads who go into the instant food busi ness. Written by Roddy Doyle, directed by Stephen Frears. Rated R, opening today in the Amherst Theater.

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