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Movie Review

'Petrol' is a mordantly funny affair

Susan Lynch and Tom Ivers in Tamar Simon Hoffs's ''Red Roses and Petrol.'' Susan Lynch and Tom Ivers in Tamar Simon Hoffs's ''Red Roses and Petrol.'' (World wide motion pictures)
By Michael Hardy
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2008
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When a movie's main character dies before the opening credits, you begin to suspect the filmmakers of morbidity. When the first song turns out to be Flogging Molly's "The Worst Day Since Yesterday," you might be tempted to head for the exits.

But stay put: As Samuel Beckett wisely noted, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." And although it never achieves the bleak hilarity of "Endgame," "Red Roses and Petrol," an adaptation of Irish writer Joseph O'Connor's play, boasts its share of Beckettian moments - I'm thinking especially of the point when one of the characters snorts two lines of his father's ashes, mistaking them for cocaine.

Those ashes are the remnants of Enda (Malcolm McDowell), the craggy, domineering paterfamilias of the Doyle clan. A heart attack fells Enda in the first scene of the film, but he lingers on through his video diary, which the Doyles watch during his wake. In the Irish ballad "Finnegans Wake," the rowdy mourners bring the departed back to life with their festivities. In "Petrol," on the other hand, there are no festivities at all, and the family's greatest concern seems to be making sure that Enda stays good and dead.

Enda, you see, is not exactly in line for beatification. A tyrannical father and an unfaithful husband, he bequeaths to his family a lifetime's worth of grievances. Perhaps the most aggrieved is Enda's son Johnny (Max Beesley), a whiskey-sodden ne'er-do-well collapsing under the weight of unfulfilled expectations. Enda's two daughters struggle with their own problems: Medbh is planning to elope to Australia, and Catherine is introducing her fiance to the family for the first time. And Enda's wife, Moya, suffers for the sins of everyone, assuming the Sisyphean responsibility of maintaining family unity.

Because "Petrol" is so grim, its few moments of repentance and reconciliation don't feel as contrived as they might otherwise; if any film has earned the right to be sentimental, it's this one. The darkness is also broken by Beesley's inflammable performance, which recalls McDowell's own star-making turn in "A Clockwork Orange." "Petrol," it's true, follows in the footsteps of earlier, better plays by Eugene O'Neill and Harold Pinter. But between its extraordinary performances and some of the most inventive cursing I've ever heard (all in a creamy Irish brogue), this film, like adaptations of "The Homecoming" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" before it, deserves its own place in the sun.

Red Roses and Petrol

Directed by: Tamar Simon Hoffs

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Max Beesley, Olivia Tracey, Susan Lynch, Heather Juergensen

At: Harvard Square

Running time: 97 minutes

Rated: R (language, some sexual references)

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