Usually we can gather a consumer’s shorthand of a filmmaker’s worldview and worth after a dozen movies. Genius, artisan, lowbrow provocateur? Hack, freak, soulless buffoon? But consider if you can Neil Jordan, his career a treacherous, multiple-personality Wild West of thoughtful sublimities (The Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa, The Butcher Boy), criminally inept catastrophes (High Spirits, We’re No Angels, Michael Collins), and various in-betweens (Interview With the Vampire, In Dreams, The Good Thief) whose disinterested lack of luster feels stranger than Jordan’s worst crash-and-burns. What might be read, mildly, as a catholic range of interests seems in the watching more like a lack of interest altogether, or inexplicable obsessions that come and go like EKG spikes. Whatever: The new film Breakfast on Pluto may be Jordan’s wildest mis-shot yet, so dense with dying fizzle and limp ideas that I began to wonder if Jordan has an evil twin, or if there are in fact several Neil Jordans, among them at least one literate stylist and one humor-handicapped village idiot.
I haven’t read the Patrick McCabe novel, and am not likely to now; the unbraked blarney on tap in Jordan’s translation tends to curdle in the belly. It’s a coy picaresque, traveling the life path of one Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy), an abandoned Irish baby who grows into a hyperbolically fey cross-dresser, renaming himself “Kitten,” pissing off the teachers at school, outraging the neighborhood, and as an adult, bouncing from one larky, ’60s—’70s incident (and song interlude) to the next. Kitten’s odyssey more or less begins with digitally animated songbirds flittering around the fictional north-south partition town, their chirps subtitled as snarky dialogue. As if that weren’t souring enough, Kitten turns out to be a living cliché, a starry-eyed “gamine” in search of his errant mother (who, naturally, resembles a revered camp icon, namely Mitzi Gaynor). Often enough, Kitten crosses paths with the Troubles, falling for a gun-smuggling glam rocker and watching in gape-mouthed slo-mo as a retarded childhood friend gets blown up by a street bomb.
Although Kitten eventually enjoys employment in London’s sex industry, Breakfast on Pluto is conspicuously shy about nookie and damn near witless in its efforts to visualize Kitten’s hyperactive fantasy life. (A superspy daydream, in which Murphy’s ordeal-by-dimples vamp annihilates an army of bad guys with spritzes of Chanel, is lead footed, if self-consciously so.) Jordan is clearly taken with drag queens, but he displays a longshoreman’s fluency with camp culture (which has, I dare say, few depths to plumb in any case). Insofar as it matters, Murphy is more gorgeous than, though just as unconvincing as, The Crying Game‘s Jaye Davidson. Armed with pursed über-lips and an affected, girly head voice that chirrups so faintly a fifth of his lines are inaudible, Murphy is no threat to John Cameron Mitchell. The stranglehold cuteness of the character kept suggesting to me Barney the dinosaur’s friend Baby Bop; “Oh kind sir!” is a typical Kitten exclamation. (McCabe, author of the comparatively tough and scalding The Butcher Boy, might be another king of infuriating inconstancy.) Bringing up the rear, Brendan Gleeson and Ian Hart leave refreshing paw prints with bellicose supporting bits. After over two hours, the animated debating songbirds return, as if to punish us for remaining when we might’ve bailed.