[Screen It]

(2000) (Barry McEvoy, Brian F. O'Byrne) (R)

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Comedy: Two men, one Catholic, the other Protestant, team up to try to get a monopoly on selling hairpieces in Northern Ireland during the 1980s.
It's Belfast in the 1980s and Colm (BARRY McEVOY), a Catholic, has just started work as a barber at the local mental hospital. Along with his Protestant coworker, George (BRIAN F. O'BRYNE), Colm gives the various patients haircuts, but realizes there must be more in life for him than doing that. He gets the chance to pursue something more when he hears about a patient known as the Scalper (BILLY CONNOLLY), who once had a monopoly on the entire hairpiece business in Northern Ireland until he scalped several of his customers.

Sensing a lucrative business opportunity, Colm and George convince the Scalper to give up his client list and they then set out to learn everything about selling hairpieces, much to the amusement of Colm's mother (RUTH McCABE) and girlfriend, Bronagh (ANNA FRIEL). They're eventually successful, however, in making their first sale with their new company, The Piece People, but then realize that they have competition from another business, Toupee or Not Toupee.

From that point on, they race against their competitors to sell the most hairpieces before Christmas Eve, with the winner being assured of having the monopoly of the business. Yet, they must contend with customers who won't pay, an I.R.A. man (COLUM CONVEY) who wants the two to supply the I.R.A. with hairpieces, and an overzealous investigator who wants to nail that man.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Ask most anyone who's ever tried their hand at sales, and they'll tell you it's a difficult, hit or miss occupation. Not only must you know your product nine ways to Sunday, but you must also be able to convince your potential customers that all life in the universe will end if they don't buy from you. Okay, that might be exaggerating a bit - it might just end only on Earth - but the convincing part is a definite must.

Of course, some people are natural born sales wizards who are able to sell the proverbial freezer to the proverbial Eskimo. Some products are also obviously harder to sell than others, especially if they have a certain stigma attached to them. That's especially true if they might cause customers to worry about others spotting such products and/or making fun of them and the sort of people who need to use them.

In today's world of at home Internet purchases and direct marketing, the need for the Avalon lady, the encyclopedia or vacuum cleaner salesman and other such door-to-door salespeople has pretty much been eliminated. Imagine then, a day and age when people tried to sell hemorrhoid creams, incontinence products or, worse yet, toupees door-to-door. Put that in a volatile locale like Northern Ireland during the '80s and there would seem to be plenty of potential for some big laughs, right?

Well, director Barry Levinson's second foray into the world of sales, "An Everlasting Piece," might be better than a comb-over - to keep the hair analogy going - but it's no perfect cinematic coiffure. A fitfully amusing piece of fluff flavored with some sociopolitical messages, the film will probably remind viewers of the Baltimore native's first sales-related flick, "Tin Men."

That film starred Danny De Vito and Richard Dreyfus as rival, middle-aged aluminum siding salesmen in the early '60s who plot to ruin the other after they get into a car crash. Here, Barry McEvoy ("Gloria," the TV film "Gettysburg") and Brian F. O'Byrne (the TV series "Oz," various Broadway shows) play politically and religiously crossed barbers who, despite their differences, team together hoping to nab an exclusive list of hair-impaired clients and then get a monopoly on the hairpiece business.

The problem is, they know nothing about it and another competitor has moved in wanting the same clientele. After a crash course in learning how to sell the product, they then set out to move more hairpieces than their competitor all while dealing with the I.R.A. and a police chief who wants to nab the local, wig wearing leader of that organization.

Despite all of that built-in potential for individual and collectively escalating humor, Levinson ("Rain Man," "Bugsy") and screenwriter McEvoy (who marks his writing debut while also starring in the film) don't mine the material for all that it's worth - or even half of that - resulting in a picture that's amusing but often comes off feeling like a huge, missed opportunity.

While there are a few funny bits regarding the duo's bumbling attempts at making their first sales - their strong accents make their stating that they've arrived "about the hairpiece" sound like they've arrived "about the herpes" - there clearly aren't enough such moments or material. In addition, one imagines that after that I.R.A. leader realizes he was sold a bad hairpiece from our guys, he and his friends would repeatedly be after them, thus providing for an ever-increasing set of complications for our duo.

The same holds true for the local police chief who suspects the two may be connected somehow to the I.R.A. Naturally, we expect that he'll also repeatedly return - along with their first customer from whom they had to retrieve a piece after his check bounced - and thus provide, along with the whole I.R.A. subplot, a comedy of errors of sorts where the two men would have to scramble to keep away from all of them while still trying to sell their products under a tight deadline.

Unfortunately, very little of that happens, resulting in a film that's occasionally cute, but certainly not as funny as it could and should have been. Of course, it's hard to make a non-farcical comedy that's about or set in the turbulence and strife of the Irish-British conflict in Ireland, and perhaps Levinson feared getting too silly within such parameters.

As in many of his Baltimore-set, period films, though, Levinson does do a good job recreating the aura of the blue collar worker, and like Alan Parker's "The Commitments," the film has a palatable and realistically gritty feel to it. Considering the setup and setting of this story, however, I kept waiting for more Catholic vs. Protestant and British vs. Irish humor and/or conflict to arise between the two main characters, particularly as the tension and stress levels would eventually get to them.

Like much of the rest of the film, however, that's also a squandered opportunity. As far as the performances are concerned, they're generally okay with McEvoy and O'Byrne delivering decent, if mostly instantly forgettable performances. Part of that obviously stems from their characters' and the film's occasionally passive nature where they react rather than act.

In such a picture we want to see such characters scheming and unveiling various plans - no matter how harebrained or stupid - to achieve their goal, but alas, that doesn't happen that much. Instead, actress Anna Friel ("William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream") gets that duty. Yet, just like the talented Billy Connolly ("Mrs. Brown," "Still Crazy") - who appears as a psychotic, scalp happy hairdresser - she's shortchanged and not given enough screen time to flesh out her character.

Connolly's character unfortunately ends up just like much of the rest of the film, in that it introduces a great deal of comedic potential, but is never allowed to unload any of it into the story or onto the viewer. The result is a moderately entertaining film that builds up a great deal of humorous expectations, but then just leaves them stranded and the viewer somewhat frustrated. Decent, but clearly not as good as might have been, "An Everlasting Piece" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 19, 2000 / Posted December 25, 2000

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