Hair farce

Looking for laughs in a lethal environment.

KEEP IN MIND that Barry Levinson's latest film is a comedy. Far from the Baltimore of Diner or Tin Men, he renders '80s Belfast with machine gun-toting British soldiers patrolling gray row houses covered with street murals of hooded Unionists and bound hands. Initially it seems such images risk overwhelming the madcap antics of a pair of mismatched toupee salesmen. But that grim, realistic backdrop turns an unremarkable comic premise into a remarkable little film.


directed by Barry Levinson with Barry McEvoy, Brian F. O'Byrne, Anna Friel, and Billy Connolly opens December 25 at Pacific Place

On Colm's first day cutting mental patients' hair, the hospital administrator greets him as "the new Catholic." Colm (Barry McEvoy) is vain and brash, with little regard for "the troubles" that constrain every move he makes. His Protestant barbering partner, George (Brian F. O'Byrne), is a plodding and perpetually mystified poet, and the two become friends by jousting tortured rhymes and exchanging youthful boasts. When a hairpiece salesman (Mrs. Brown's rascally Billy Connolly) is committed for literally scalping his customers, George follows Colm in a scheme to take over the patient's abandoned monopoly. They soon discover they have to outsell a rival firm to win the territory; an even greater threat is being caught between the IRA and Her Majesty's constables.

Wigs are always funny, offering unlimited opportunity to mock men's vanity, and Colm and George's hapless salesmanship guarantees plenty of laughs. Fortunately, what keeps Piece from being a mindless Road to Ulster-style movie is its depiction of plain souls determinedly seeking normalcy amid civil strife. Colm lives with his mother, aunt, and brother in a house that abuts a "peace wall" marking Protestant turf, their home sheltered by a slim shield to deflect errant bombs. At the movies, he's bullied into saluting the queen's image. His milkman is an IRA soldier. How can his partnership with George survive when Colm angrily calls barking dogs Protestants?

Although this is screenwriter and star McEvoy's story, drawn from his own childhood memories and his father's real-life tales of selling toupees in Belfast, it's easy to understand why the creator of such deeply personal films as Liberty Heights and Avalon chose to direct it. Levinson likely sees the disaffected young men of his own work in Colm (who insults his clients) and George (who confuses them with earnest poetry). With comedy and drama in equal balance, Piece's richly drawn characters make the best of their absurd world that, like an ill-fitting wig, sits atop their bald misfortune.

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