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IRISH STEW

"Ahhhh, Ireland," says the guide, giving his spiel on the bus while its riders sing "Danny Boy."

"Land of mystery, land of stones, land of (long pause) fish. ... A land where the voices of the dead whistle through the trees and the streets. A land where the past reaches out and touches your soul."

That's not the land Marcy encounters at the beginning of the wonderful new comedy "The Matchmaker."

What she sees is a land where sheep block the road, love-crazed women flock sheepishly to the local matchmaking festival, young men act like hormone-poisoned idiots and the local dogs like to relieve themselves on tourists' luggage.

Mostly what Marcy discovers as she accidentally lands in the middle of the festival in Ballinagra is a town where local color is the chief industry, and a nice little moneymaker it is, too.

Almost everybody she encounters in Ballinagra is helpful and cheerful and with angles of their own so sharp they're in imminent danger of hurting themselves.

For a stressed-out cynic like Marcy -- who earns her daily bread trying to make a dimwit American senator look good -- she has somehow landed in a blarney festival. What she discovers is B.S. as a lovely way of life, a kind of community music that gives joy to provincial lives that are no stranger to hardship and deprivation.

I love "The Matchmaker." Deeply. I smiled and chortled and belly-laughed through the first 45 minutes of this movie and didn't mind at all at all when it slowed down for the love stuff (which, in modern movies, flocks obediently in the plot like sheep crossing a road). I haven't felt this happy in a movie's company in a very long while.

It couldn't possibly be more of a contrast to the big dark commercial movies opening Friday -- Oliver Stone's all star "U-Turn" and Gary Fleder's adaptation of the best seller "Kiss the Girls."

Of course, "The Matchmaker" ends badly. Almost all movies do these days. It's a function of money being spent, focus groups consulted and rank creative cowardice. But until it gets to the sodden final place it thinks it needs to go, "The Matchmaker" is one of the very best of a grand little wavelet of humanist comedies from the British isles -- "Brassed Off," "The Van," "The Full Monty."

Right about here, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that there are a couple of things that may be clouding my vision here. One is that Mark Joffe's movie is a new Irish gloss on one of my all-time favorite movies, Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero," a radiant chunk of magic realism about a stressed-out American who learns a whole new life rhythm in rural Scotland.

The other is that "The Matchmaker" stars Janeane Garofalo, about whom I may not be entirely rational. If "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" didn't clinch it, this is the movie that proves conclusively that when it comes to sheer lovability, she's right up there with the Sandra Bullocks, Meg Ryans and Helen Hunts. And maybe
he even has moments that go a little higher.

She's about as unconventional a movie star as ever walked in front of a movie camera. She has a ducky little walk (that doesn't stop her from swaggering), a foul mouth, a crabby disposition, a stiletto brain (which she uses without fear), a huge, enchanting smile and two of the biggest and most beautiful eyes that God ever gave a human being.

She's a stand-up comic not only by trade but by nature, which makes it hard to doll and slink around like an actress on movie sets. It all makes her even more delightful than she might be otherwise. When she's great on screen -- which she is here -- there's a spiky and real intelligence that glows within and warms up every frame.

A small squad of writers was involved in this thing, which is usually a bad sign. In this case, though, they all seem to have been focused on Garofaloing the script so that everything that she says -- or is said to her -- is thoroughly natural and tailor-made. Very few actresses get star vehicles as beguiling and lovable as this one, but then, very few actresses are, by nature, as feisty as Garofalo or as prickly and apt to go outside the Hollywood mainstream.

Whatever she may be in life (her comedy, by general agreement, can get pretty skanky), Janeane Garofalo on screen is a match for the scene-stealingest child or dog you can scare up.

David O'Hara plays her Irish suitor and lover, Sean. He's a former journalist hiding in Ballinagra from a beautiful but faithless and greedy ex-wife and bedding the local barmaids until Marcy comes along.

The great Irish character actor Milo O'Shea -- who played Leopold Bloom, no less, in Joseph Strick's movie version of James Joyce's "Ulysses" -- is the cunning local matchmaker-in-chief, the one who has made a life science of pairing up human creatures by twos.

"Out of nothing, I create a perfect match," he boasts directly to the camera, and then shows us the graphs and pie charts to tell us how.

"Your chances are greater," he always tells his horny male customers, "if you've got a gorgeous Turbo suntan." Guess who owns the local "Turbo Tanning Parlor."

Marcy has been sent to Ballinagra to dig up some picturesque Irish ancestors for the senator, who's getting clobbered in the polls and needs something, anything, to make him look electable. Denis Leary plays his chief aide, the sort of soulless, adder-tongued gangster who probably got into politics instead of street crime because it required less physical exertion.

As I said, all the writers cause the lovey-dovey end of "The Matchmaker" to look a bit overworked and undercooked -- yet another movie with a chickenhearted "let's remember how dumb the audience is" ending.

This time I didn't mind all that much.

It's like the female innkeeper says to Marcy when she tells her she may have a room after all, even though the hotel is full -- "if you don't mind something a little bijou."

The room she has is small and cramped, and has a bathroom whose tub is shared by a strange man and his grungy dog. But it's the room that changes Marcy's life.

"The Matchmaker" won't begin to do all of that, but it's a wonderful movie -- if you don't mind something a little bijou.