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Film review: Van, The

Third part of trilogy not as good as first 2 but is still better than most films being churned out.

Published: Friday, July 11 1997 1:31 p.m. MDT

Irish author Roddy Doyle has some interesting notions about mixing business and friendship — in particular, that unemployment often brings friends closer together, while sharing a business can push them apart.

Yet friendship, family and business are what his novel "The Van" is all about, as is the muddled but charming comedy-drama of the same name, which he, not-so-coincidentally, adapted for the big screen. The book is also the third part of Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" (which includes "The Commitments" and "The Snapper," both of which were also made into films).

Yet despite a stellar cast and Doyle's witty screenplay, the celluloid version of "The Van" isn't quite as good as its source material or either of the earlier films. Of course, it's still head and shoulders above some of the shallow cinema Hollywood's been putting on the screen as of late.

Character actor Colm Meaney, who starred in the other two films, returns here, playing Larry, an unemployed pub-hopper who's more than content to lounge about than look for work. His best friend, Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly), has also recently joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Bimbo isn't used to having so much leisure time, though. In desperation, he almost takes a menial job in a fast-food restaurant. But he hits on the idea of opening a fish-and-chips concession van — to capitalize on the wave of World Cup Soccer fever that has swept their town.

Things get off to a particularly inauspicious start for the chums — the broken-down van they find is not only filthy, but sans motor, and it needs to be towed from site to site — and concerns about health standards. But the business eventually thrives, only to bring the buds to blows — even though Bimbo actually bought the van, Larry acts as if he's running things (he even gives jobs to his son and daughter).

Director Stephen Frears (who also made "The Snapper") plays things a lot more solemnly than you'd expect — the ending, in particular, is disappointingly downbeat and ambiguous — and there's a definite pacing problem. Also, the comedic parts ring much truer than does the drama.

Fortunately for him and the audience, both O'Kelly and Meaney are better than the actual material (especially O'Kelly, who wears his world-weary, everyman facial expressions well), as are Ger Ryan and Caroline Rothwell, who play the duo's long-suffering wives.

Also helping things a great deal is a superb musical score co-written and performed by Eric Clapton, whose understated and bluesy acoustic guitar work gives the film a real blue-collar feel.

"The Van" is rated R for profanity, a few vulgar jokes and references, some violence and a brief glimpse of Meaney's behind.