This movie has provoked a lot of complicating and surrounding thoughts in me. So I’m going to just lay out my table before we get into it. I promise this is all going somewhere.
For a long time as a writer about film I’ve had a morbid fascination. Well I’ve had several, increasingly niche morbid fascinations to do with trash cinema and seeing if there’s any value in it. Hell I’m the person who thinks Mother of Tears is a more entertaining movie than Inferno and I love it with all the sincerity of my heart. This was driven really by a dual love of horror and a fascination with explosions of quality of the highest order and intention that just don’t seem to get released in big ways anymore. Yes, there have been a few recent releases that I’ve seen that really are apocalyptically bad, but outside of a few instances such as the theatrical cut of Justice League, we don’t seem to get films as misguided by ignorance on such a massive scale as Rain Man, or films released with such insane hit confidence as John Carter or Clash of the Titans. Today’s Sex in the City 2 is Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, a film that knows exactly what it is and refuses to be anything else and that’s the charm of it, aided by its mega inclusivity giving it the party atmosphere it wants, its a hazy wine mom party and everyone’s invited whether or not they’re moms or like wine. Whereas Sex In The City 2 attempts to do that, but through sheer pig headed ignorance ends up spitting in the faces of everyone it wants to celebrate.
Sex in the City 2 is a great segue into the most relevant morbid fascination to the movie I’m here to talk about today. That being that when I was a kid, my slightly older big sister forced me to watch an endless amount of really awful, and sometimes quite entertaining rom coms for teenage girls. Everything from the vapid shiny charm of Ella Enchanted to the quite good Stardust to the really quite excellent Four Weddings & A Funeral to Confessions of a Shopaholic, A Cinderella Story, to The Princess Diaries, to Twilight, to Pretty Woman, to Love, Actually, to Valentine’s Day, to what might be the nadir of all this, Bride Wars and Leap Year. So when I say your least favourite movie isn’t the worst film out there, I’m not just talking about White Fire, Frankenstein Island, Run Hide Fight, or The Dirt, all films I’ve seen, I’m talking about Bride Wars, Leap Year, and Life Itself, the latter of which admittedly I only have myself to blame for seeing. It’s not like there weren’t hidden gems to be found along that journey, but really teenage girls deserve better movies than Bride Wars.
The final piece of contextualisation you really need to understand my experience with Wild Mountain Thyme, is that after watching it, I was reflecting on that credo, “they don’t make trash fires like they used to anymore” which turned into desperate search that lead me to see The Emoji Movie, Holmes & Watson, and Peter Rabbit in cinemas, and realised it’s just not true anymore. After all, they made Holmes & Watson, and Justice League. Studios are facing the climax of a monopolisation loop that causes productions to get more and more bloated with less and less quality control because there’s an idea that these movies are too big to fail. Now, while Wild Mountain Thyme doesn’t fit into that huge budget rubric of movies, it is also a disaster of massive proportions that feels like nobody was at the wheel steering it away from an iceberg. Netflix’s release of the would-be-high-profile thriller squandered by internal studio politics amongst giants, The Woman In The Window, only shows how more and more mid budget disasters like these are slipping through the cracks of studios whose capitalistic concerns are too large in scope to care about the quality of a quaint little romantic comedy starring a few mildly famous character actors.
Wild Mountain Thyme is an alleged romantic comedy directed by the absurdly successful John Patrick Shanley, who’s work as a writer and playwright is extensive. He won a Pulitzer and a Tony for the play that would later become his masterpiece of a sophomore directorial effort, Doubt. He’s already an Oscar winner for his screenplay for Moonstruck and his directorial debut, Joe Versus The Volcano, well I don’t like it but I understand it’s a cult classic. So his first movie for thirteen years comes out and it’s this quaint little Irish romantic comedy, as opposed to the heavy internal questioning that made Doubt electric. It stars Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan as two lifelong friends and neighbours with a love for each other that everyone knows exists, including each other, but they won’t get together for mysterious reasons. This and the Local Hero type land sale to an American played by John Hamm drive the conflict forward. It is narrated by Christopher Walken whose character narrates from beyond the grave. In fact, the movie opens with him saying, “Welcome to Ireland, I’m dead!”. And really, I wish the whole movie was as laugh out loud stupid as what that opening promises because although this film has one of the most mind melting endings ever and some quite insidiously horrible undertones that we’ll get into, the overriding tone of it is a horrible tweeness that just gets boring after not very long at all.
It’s not that I don’t like cheese or movies like this in general or that I don’t like rom-coms. I like all of those things and I can’t stand people who write off twee movies or cheesy movies or schmaltzy movies or movies teenage girls like but if this is the best the market has to offer that demographic then they are being seriously underserved. It’s just so deathly dull and boring for the most part, and here’s where I think an important distinction needs to be made. John Patrick Shanley, despite having a name like that and whatever heritage he may have, is about as Irish as I am. In that I have Irish heritage and have been there a few times but I could not realistically call myself Irish. He was born in New York. Emily Blunt is from London. Christopher Walken is well… Christopher Walken. Dornan is the only one actually from Ireland and he is by far the best thing about the movie. Shanley has previously spoken very well in his films about the inherent experience of being Irish American, but his impression of Ireland here is about as Irish as a Guinness served in an Irish themed pub on Saint Patrick’s Day in Boston. In that it’s all clothes and pastiche and no actual relevance to Ireland in any way whatsoever beyond the fact Irish money is in it.
So this makes me think about the John Hamm character. An American businessman who comes to an Ireland he has blood from but no actual relation to in order to integrate into its culture. Now, this reminds me of two things. The first one is Local Hero. A film with a similar plot but in Scotland instead of Ireland where Peter Riegert is convinced of the joys of Scotland by Peter Capaldi and Denis Lawson after coming there in order to buy up land for an oil rig. It’s a charming and beautiful film with a real sense of cultural authenticity and a sense of mysticism and magical realism that feels actually rooted in Scottish folklore and culture, and importantly, it was made by Bill Forsyth, one of the most Scottish people to ever fucking exist!
The second thing John Hamm’s character reminds me of is John Patrick Shanley. I feel like Hamm’s character is the real author insert, and thus the ridiculous platitudes and made up and silly cultural truisms about the difference between American and Irish people just feel like the ramblings of someone who thinks he has an insight into a culture he knows nothing about. This includes, and I shit you not, that Americans don’t settle, but because Irish people live on a fucking island, (it is delivered as a pun), they don’t want to call attention to themselves so settle for unhappiness more, with that being an inherent part of being Irish. Not just essentializing a fucking Nationality, but in a way that is delivered as some deeply wise truth and frankly, it makes my fucking skin crawl that a fucking Yank feels entitled to make these fucking comments. I’m not Irish, I’ve been to Ireland a lot, so I feel some kind of connection to the place and the culture. I dated a girl from Dublin for about 6 months. I’ve been to the South and the North and met lots of people there I still consider to be close personal friends. I would not however ever claim to be able to sum up the Irish identity, as a fucking island by the way, not two separate Nations with very different cultural histories, in a sentence. I, frankly, know my own ignorance better. In this way the film is more comparable to something like Sex In The City 2. A film whose ideas of liberation for women in middle eastern countries where maybe their rights aren’t as humane for women as other countries is their right to buy expensive shoes, and imagines that under the full body coverings all the native women really want to do is be as fabulous as Carrie fucking Bradshaw. The director of that movie by the way, is also a white yank who, as far as I can tell, only left America for the first time to make that movie. In a way it’s also comparable to Leap Year, another dreadful rom com set in Ireland. The director here is actually from Thailand but similarly gives a tourists eye view of a country that I can immediately look at and realise it’s a tourist’s eye view because I actually have a modicum of familiarity with the culture. At least the Thai director of Leap Year is like, based in the British Isles, and at least Leap Year had Amy Adams in it, a blessing I didn’t realise I’d miss until Wild Mountain Thyme. This is not to say that if you’re not from a place, then you can’t make movies about the place, but Christ, put some effort into it! The trailer for this movie was rightly mocked upon release because even from 3 minutes designed to make the movie look good, everyone from all cultures could see what a botched fucking job this is. It’s frankly, shameful.
This horribly twee understanding of a whole culture can be epitomised in the twist of the movie, which I won’t reveal because we don’t do spoilers here. But let me put it this way. In Local Hero there’s a suggestion that one character might secretly be a mermaid. It’s done in a similar way to the suggestions that Adam Sandler’s character in Punch-Drunk Love might be Superman, all to do with implications and symbolism. It’s tasteful, and it feels of the land. It feels like a plot point that could have been organically grown in the green fields of Scotland, if Earth was made out of screenplay pages, I guess. Wild Mountain Thyme tries to pull off something similar, but totally explicitly, and with all the tact of a brick to the face. It tries to fit in with the quasi-poetic and fantastical tone but it’s like playing a jaunty jig on the piano in C Major only for the Middle C to have all of the strings cut. It’s sold as the culmination of the movie but it’s so out of place and it’s a smack in the face of dumb.
This is to say nothing of the movie’s offensive gender politics which feel so backwards it’s almost parodic.
I wish I could say this movie was a fun bad movie, but aside from the beginning and the end, it’s just dull and stupid. It’s cliche to say this is the equivalent of an Irish themed pub, but, the movie is so ridden with cliches I don’t really care. I know Richard Curtis has made movies in which he puts his foot in similar issues but really watching this I did have a hankering to watch The Boat That Rocked or About Time and watch someone do this properly. It’s to be a black mark on the careers of everyone involved in a similar way to Cats, despite the fact that that movie is much worse and also more fun.