Last year, the arthouse and independent release division of Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, struck gold with "The Full Monty", a little film out of England that was modestly budgeted at $3.5 million. With a global box office in excess of $240 million, the gross profit of that release ran in the neighborhood of 98%. Now, one year later, it seems that Fox Searchlight has struck gold once again, this time with another modestly budgeted feature out of England, "Waking Ned Devine". With an interesting premise, simplistic execution, and plenty of charm, this ambitious little black comedy about a lottery scam will definitely make you leave the theater feeling lucky.
In the small Irish seaside village of Tullymore, population 53, a number of the town's residents tune into the weekly lottery draw, hoping to be propelled into the lap of luxury by the correct combination of seven numbers. For chums Jackie O'Shea (veteran Irish actor Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly of "Fawlty Towers"), the draw ends in disappointment, as their efforts are fruitless for yet another week. However, when they learn that the winning ticket was purchased in their village, they conspire to become best friends with the winner, so that they may share in the riches. And so they begin making their rounds through Tullymore, hoping to ferret out the neighbor with newfound riches.
Their investigations and attempts at networking lead them to the house of Ned Devine. Unfortunately, Ned Devine is dead, apparently of a heart attack upon learning of his good fortune. Even worse, Ned Devine has written his name on the back of the ticket, making him the only one who can claim the prize. Unwilling to let a minor technicality stand in their way, Jackie and Michael devise a plan to claim the money on behalf of their late neighbor, with Michael posing as Ned Devine to claim the prize. However, before the two co-conspirators can claim the money, the lottery official must validate the identity of 'Ned Devine' by making inquiries at the village.
With the money almost in their grasp and the prospect of jail terms if their fraudulent plot is uncovered, Jackie recruits everyone in the village to help them with the scheme, in return for a split of the lottery money, a windfall of 130,000 pounds for each townsfolk. Among their accomplices are Jackie's worrisome wife (Fionnula Flanagan of "Some Mother's Son"), and a pig farmer (James Nesbitt of "Welcome to Sarajevo") separated from his true love (Susan Lynch of "The Secret of Roan Inish") because of a severe b.o. problem.
Despite the fact that the two central characters are committing fraud and disrespecting the recently-dead, they are so amiable that it is hard not to side with them, no matter what depths they must sink to in order to get their hands on the money. Kirk Jones, who wrote and directed the film, has populated the village of Tullymore with a number of interesting characters that are fun to be around, each with their own quirks. On top of this, he has captured a number of memorable scenes in this film that are a hoot to watch, including Michael zipping through town on a motorcycle without a stitch, a funeral for Ned that is interrupted by the lottery official's arrival, and a lively scene involving Ned's dentures. Finally, the film's locale, shot on the Isle of Man, is visually impressive, showcasing many breathtaking vistas and a perfect complement to Shaun Davey's traditional score.
If there is anything to complain about "Waking Ned Devine", it would be that the film seemed incomplete. Jones sets up a lot of potential complications for the scheme during the first and second acts, however, he never brings them into play. In fact, the third act is almost non-existent, taking up only a mere ten minutes at the film's end, with very little effort on the part of the main players to pull off the plan. While the resolution is certainly satisfying and hilarious in execution, it seemed rushed. If the scam had involved more complications and crises, this wondrous experience would not have seemed so short. Part of the fun of watching a 'caper' movie are the unexpected surprises and how the characters deal with them, and watching a plan go off without a hitch is not as entertaining. Don't get me wrong... "Waking Ned Devine" is great as-is... I was just having so much fun in the town of Tullymore that I didn't want to leave.
Despite the shortcomings of the story, "Waking Ned Devine" is a treat to watch, especially in the company of a boisterous audience. Though it may not have any redeeming moral values to impart, it's a heck of a lot of fun, and could be "The Full Monty" of 1998.