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Movie Review

White Irish Drinkers

‘Drinkers’ lacks emotional kick

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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All the good intentions in the world can’t save “White Irish Drinkers’’ from playing like the baldest of retreads. A low-budget coming-of-age drama set in outer Brooklyn during the mid-1970s, writer-director John Gray’s film is personal filmmaking that feels bizarrely impersonal, with generic elements and attitudes skimmed from “Mean Streets,’’ “Saturday Night Fever,’’ the films of James Gray (no relation), and every story ever written featuring an abusive, alcoholic Irish dad named Paddy.

Nick Thurston is sympathetic enough as young Brian Leary, a Bay Ridge kid too sensitive for his rough neighborhood and rougher family. His sainted ma (Karen Allen) is too busy enabling her brute of a husband (Stephen Lang) to know Brian’s dark secret: That in his basement hideaway the boy paints . . . watercolors. Only Brian’s criminally minded older brother, Danny (Geoffrey Wigdor), knows about the art, and he considers it a sign of weakness best cured by bringing Brian along on his next jewelry-store heist.

“White Irish Drinkers’’ follows Brian as he erratically tries to fit into this cramped milieu while dreaming of getting out. His former high school pals — the film’s title is their self-identifying rallying cry — now boast of jobs driving buses and collecting garbage, and they mercilessly rag on the one kid (Zachary Booth) who’s learning about computers at Carnegie Mellon. College may be Brian’s ticket out, too, or maybe he can find happiness with Shauna (Leslie Murphy), a sweet, wary travel agent who likes to run nude through cemeteries on the first date.

Lang effectively creates a mood of crushing patriarchal menace whenever Paddy comes home from Clancy’s Bar, but he’s not onscreen much until his big, mawkish monologue toward the end. In general, the performances in “White Irish Drinkers’’ are unpolished but earnest; what sinks the movie is Gray’s shopworn dialogue (from Ma: “I made my choice like the Church said, for better and for worse’’), listless direction, and the sense that we’ve seen it all before and why, exactly, are we watching it again?

What little kick there is comes from Peter Riegert in the small role of Whitey, the shabby owner of the shabbier neighborhood movie theater where Brian works. It’s 1975 and the Rolling Stones are playing Madison Square Garden; somehow, Whitey works a few ancient connections to book the group for a one-night after-show. This leads to the movie’s only interesting plot twist, but until then the blissfully dry Riegert lifts the pulse of “White Irish Drinkers’’ whenever he appears.

If only Gray had the wit or nerve to give the actor a scene with Allen, Riegert’s “Animal House’’ girlfriend all those years ago. No such luck, and Allen, as lovely as ever, is stuck in thankless housedress mode throughout. It’s a mark of how hapless “White Irish Drinkers’’ is that the only genuine emotions it conjures up are for another movie.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

WHITE IRISH DRINKERS

Written and directed by: John Gray

Starring: Nick Thurston, Geoffrey Wigdor, Stephen Lang, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, Leslie Murphy

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: R (pervasive language, some sexuality and violence)

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