This is the second film that Irish writer-director Neil Jordan has made from a novel by Patrick McCabe, and like the first–1997’s “The Butcher Boy”–it’s boldly imaginative and visually arresting. But though there are some dark undercurrents in “Breakfast on Pluto,” by comparison to the earlier picture it’s a far more hopeful and cheery piece. Like another of Jordan’s previous movies, it’s about a male who prefers dressing as a woman–in this case Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy), who calls himself Kitten. But although Patrick’s life isn’t exactly a happy one–he’s abandoned as an infant on the doorstep of the local priest, grows up in a distinctly unsupportive adoptive home, is ridiculed at school, and is unwillingly drawn into the vortex of Irish republican extremism, especially after he decamps to London–the film turns out to be remarkably upbeat. That’s because Kitten, always focused on the goal of finding his mother, is like a modern-day Candide, imbued with a limitless optimism that seems capable of saving him from every dangerous circumstance and turning almost all the potentially threatening people he meets into friends and supporters of his quest.
The good-natured sweetness of “Breakfast on Pluto” is often beguiling, and the picture benefits enormously from Jordan’s directorial sensitivity and inventiveness, Murphy’s virtuoso performance, and excellent support from the secondary cast, which includes such stalwarts as Liam Neeson (as a priest whose connection with Patrick turns out to be more significant than he’s willing to admit at first), Stephen Rea (as a needy magician who makes Kitten part of his act) and Brendan Gleeson (as a gruff amusement-park employee who gives Kitten a job). But when stretched out over more than two hours, the movie’s combination of charm and grittiness grows thin. It’s also undermined, over the long haul, by the character of Patrick himself, who, like Voltaire’s prototype of the eternal optimist, is, despite his flamboyance and vitality, more reactor than actor, more passive recipient than determiner of his fate. And so when things works out well in the end, it seems more a happy accident than the reward of real effort. That kind of hopeful determinism may be the whole point of the tale, but it rather leaves a hole at the center of things, a lingering suspicion that there’s less human feeling here than meets the eye.
The problem is exacerbated by the highly episodic structure, which divides the film into almost forty individual “chapters” whose titles–some straightforward, others more than a little coy–introduce the various segments. After the near-Dickensian origins of the lad are set out by a couple of talking robins at the beginning (a device that’s undoubtedly precious but still works), we move fairly quickly through the childhood and youth of Patrick (Conor McEvoy) until he emerges as a young man (now played by Murphy) who’s convinced that his mother was a housekeeper raped by Father Bernard (Neeson) and determined to locate her. After spending a night listening to a poetic biker (Liam Cunningham), he leaves his childhood pals, he gets involved with Billy Hatchet (Gavin Friday), a traveling entertainer who makes him a part of his act and, when that doesn’t work out, installs him in an old seaside caravan which, unfortunately, also happens to be a hiding-place for an IRA arms stash–which Patrick provocatively disposes of after an incident in which one of his old chums, a boy with Down’s Syndrome, is killed in a bomb explosion. He then heads for London to find his mother, getting a job at the amusement park with the burly, often belligerent John-Joe (Gleeson) and, after a frightening run-in with a killer (Bryan Ferry), taking up with lonely magician Bertie (Rea) before being reclaimed by Charlie (Ruth Negga) and Irwin (Laurence Kinlan), two friends from his hometown. Before long, though, he becomes entangled not only in Charlie’s unplanned pregnancy but Irwin’s IRA activities, and is taken into custody by the police (Steven Waddington and Ian Hart), who suspect him of complicity in a nightclub bombing but gradually grow to like him. Following his release he gravitates toward prostitution, but instead takes a job in a porno peep-show, where his real father finds him and directs him to his mother. In due course Kitten finally acquires a true family, though a highly unconventional one.
All of this is obviously short on realism; though “Breakfast at Pluto” touches on serious subjects, it situates them in a world of magical fantasy where darkness and brutality are swept away, if not eradicated, by a simple refusal to let them triumph. Kitten’s attitude is that nothing should be taken too seriously, and her rejection of the nasty, unpleasant side of life is enough to win her allies and, in the end, overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles. Her airy naivete is beautifully captured by Murphy, even though the character’s lack of maturation over the course of the story eventually takes its toll. Still, his performance, combined with Jordan’s dextrous handling and the fine technical contributions–Tom Conroy’s colorful production design, Elmer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s vibrant costumes, and Declan Quinn’s luscious cinematography–contribute to the fairy-tale atmosphere. Another strong element is the background score, a succession of pop songs carefully chosen to fit the period and the narrative and only occasionally coming across as overly obvious commentary to the action.
In the final analysis “Breakfast at Pluto” is pure blarney, but it’s well-meaning blarney told by a master cinematic storyteller and boasting an eye-catching lead performance. Too long and only fitfully achieving the sense of magic it strives so hard to capture, it still possesses enough charm to cross the finish line winded but game. And it would take a hard heart indeed not to enjoy those chattering robins.