Telling a sorry tale
‘The Misfortunates’’ is a bleak comedy that’s not as funny or grim as it needs to be. Set in a small Belgian town, the film explains how 13-year-old Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden) survived his frantic upbringing. He’s raised by his useless alcoholic father (Koen de Graeve), and three loutish uncles. They all live with their widowed mother.
Everyone screams and curses and misbehaves, but the movie, directed by Felix van Groeningen, from Dimitri Verhulst’s novel, wants us to feel sorry for these people, even as they drink themselves stupid, have sex a bed away from a sleeping kid, and hand out useless advice. At least, that’s what the weepy piano implies.
The brothers are a tightknit group. You mess with one of them, you feel the wrath of all. Their poor, tiny mother (Gilda De Bal, who’s very good) deserves sainthood, until you consider that she’s just enabling them. The movie is predicated on the uncouth, filthy, and vulgar — naked bike races, beer-drinking contests, seeping colostomy holes, rampant chauvinism, a house cat lapping up the byproduct of one character’s liquor-fueled binge. So why go sentimental with tearful breakdowns, trips to the hospital, and changes of heart?
The biggest requirement for a film full of awful people is that the movie believe in their awfulness. We have to believe it, too, but it’s a lot easier when the film has been made with conviction. “The Misfortunates’’ feels like a sitcom attempted by ardent fans of the Belgian realists Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. If that comparison sounds interesting, I’ll try to come up with a less intriguing one.
In the meantime, the movie flits from the late 1980s to the present day, where an adult Gunther (Valentijn Dhaenens) capitulates to heredity, telling his pregnant girlfriend that he’ll leave if she keeps the baby. You can see what van Groeningen is going for, a kind of emotional irony where the misery we see somehow enhances our affection for or interest in the characters. Mike Leigh is a master of that sort of moviemaking. But Leigh has both a shrewdness with actors and the force of wisdom.
“The Misfortunates,’’ whose unprintable Dutch title is more apt, has moments of unexpected tenderness, many of them courtesy of de Graeve’s deceptively delicate performance. When the television is confiscated, Gunther’s father and uncles take over the living room of an Iranian couple to watch the newly resurgent Roy Orbison in concert. The brothers may look like they’re auditioning for the story of Motörhead, but this square-looking American man seems to have truly moved them, in their obnoxious way. Of course, that scene fits with only a little of what follows. The movie has to twist your arm to get you to feel for these people. But you wouldn’t be wrong to think it’s been broken.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.