Set in a Dublin that looks like the butt end of nowhere, John Crowley's "Intermission" could fairly be described as a Robert Altman ensemble movie without the flab, or "Magnolia" with a mean streak and bigger laughs. Along with the brilliant historical reenactment "Bloody Sunday" (2002), it offers hints of a clear-eyed new Irish cinema that may yet come into being. And it has one of the more perverse titles in ages -- it's as if a novel were called "Chapter Headings" or a TV show "Station Break."
Actually, the intermission referred to is the break in the relationship between John (Cillian Murphy, last seen running from zombies in "28 Days Later") and Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald, the naive maid of "Gosford Park"), two aimless young Dubliners. In a classic case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for boneheadedness, John tests his girlfriend's commitment by telling her it's over. Rather than fight for him, as expected, she goes off with Sam (Michael McElhatton), a married bank manager whose wife (Deirdre O'Kane) then embarks on a rampage of revenge sex as terrifying as it is comic.
They're but four of many, all so focused on their own bitterness that they ricochet off one another like angry marbles. Jerry (Colm Meaney) is a police detective sure that a TV news producer will allow him to live out the violent cop show he carries in his head. The producer, Ben (Tom O'Sullivan), is desperate to get out of soft news and allows himself to be ethically hammerlocked by Jerry, who has a soft spot for mystical Celtic schlock to equal his disdain for due process.
There's John's lovelorn chum Oscar (David Wilmot); their supermarket boss Mr. Henderson (Owen Roe), an officious prat given to prefacing every sentence with the phrase "As they say in the States . . ."; and Deirdre's sister Sally (Shirley Henderson), a sourpuss with a secretly throbbing heart and the most impressive female moustache since Frida Kahlo hit puberty. Henderson has been the secret weapon of films as disparate as "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (she was Moaning Myrtle), and she nearly steals this one, too, as a wallflower empowered by her loathing for everything and everybody.
Finally, there's Mick (Brian F. O'Byrne), a bus driver whose wife wants a new kitchen, and Lehiff (Colin Farrell), a buzzcut lout who may be able to help him get one. Farrell doesn't act like a movie star here, but he clearly is one, and the hairtrigger Lehiff manages to stay part of the ensemble while burning a hole through every scene he's in, even when he's wearing a rubber mask and holding one of the characters hostage.
No one in "Intermission" is particularly bright or well-spoken, certainly not the film's hero, John, who's as bullheaded as only a boy in love can be. The brogues are thick, the profanity thicker. So why is the movie such a spiky comic treat? Because each of these cynics harbors a spark of hope -- except for Lehiff, who just wants to break things -- and that hope makes them crazy in ways that are richly, movingly funny. In a very Irish sense, they're punished for not expecting the absolute worst of any given situation.
"Intermission" sometimes goes too far in connecting its multi-narrative dots, and the jiggling, zoomy camerawork -- this year's model for movie "realism" -- shouldn't be taken in on a full stomach. Look under the artless art and there's plenty of gimmickry to the film. But there's joy, too, and the occasional sideswipe of grace. Life, to bowdlerize Lehiff, can be "[expletive] dee-lish," and so can this movie.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.