The gifted Irish novelist and filmmaker Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Michael Collins) says that his overriding concern is "how individuals work with what they've been given." Case in point: Jordan's new feature, Breakfast on Pluto. This bittersweet, gender-bending drama takes a page from Candide its beleaguered hero, too, happily perseveres in the face of disastrous misadventure and blood-curdling violence but in the end it's pure Jordan, which is to say a dramatic combination of explosive Irish politics and deeply personal crises that never forgets what a screeching farce life can be. For Jordan, this is a return to top form.
The protagonist here is a doe-eyed, rail-thin Irish-Catholic lad named Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy, the survivor of doomsday in 28 Days Later), and what he's been given to work with is a bottomless font of optimism. He doesn't even need Dr. Pangloss to tutor him: Patrick surges onward through the force of his own will. That he's a foundling who was left in a basket on a country doorstep is the first complication in his life. That he's a florid transvestite who calls himself "Saint Kitten" and worships the old Hollywood starlet Mitzi Gaynor is the second. That most of the world sees him as a freak, and his foster family dismisses him as an embarrassment, is the third. Still, he carries on, surviving the 1960s and making his way into the disco era.
Voltaire cooked up obstacles aplenty for his hero conscription into the Bulgarian army, the Inquisition, even an earthquake in Portugal. Jordan, working from a novel by his old mate Patrick McCabe, does no less for Kitten, who is anything but a mere victim. At home, the boy drives his foster mother to distraction with his carefully applied mascara and his selection of frocks. At school, he infuriates the priests with an essay stuffed with pornographic wish-fulfillment. He's thrown out of a Saturday-night dance for wearing a dress. On the road with a seedy rock band called Billy Hatchete and the Mohawks, Patrick takes to the stage dressed like Pocahontas and gets pelted with rotten vegetables. At an Irish Republican Army rally, he loudly demands pink sunglasses, then petulantly dumps a cache of IRA weapons into a fishing pond. All this before he even crosses the Irish Sea to swinging London, there to find real trouble in the great city's back alleys and fleshpots.
The cartoonish elements of Kitten Braden's odyssey the girlish posing, the campy bitching might attract the same huge audiences who couldn't resist Jordan's surprise hit, The Crying Game, with its pivotal gender-switch shocker. Truth be told, though, Pluto actually bears more resemblance to the filmmaker's less heralded 1997 feature The Butcher Boy, in which another sort of emotionally unbalanced young man was driven to act out his murderous fantasies. Like Pluto, that film, too, was adapted from a novel by McCabe, who obviously shares Jordan's fascination with misfits and outsiders.
Once Kitten is plunked down in London, we might expect things to go a little better for him than in the provincial Irish village where he grew up. No such luck. The unresolved traumas of his childhood tag along to the city, and there, too, he must face down the tormentors and bigots who would destroy him, using his characteristic grace and wit. In the meantime, he assembles a bizarre résumé oversize mouse at a kiddie park; assistant to a magician named Bertie (Jordan regular Stephen Rea), who cuts him in half and zings knives past his head; vulnerable male prostitute; peep-show attraction. All the while, he is also searching for his biological mother, a quest that's rudely interrupted when a terrorist bomb explodes in the nightclub where he's sipping a Campari and soda, and the British police accuse him of the crime.
Not even that can dim his enthusiasm. Pummeled by the cops and splashed onto the front pages as "the cross-dressing killer," our resilient hero/heroine confounds his interrogators by imagining himself as a secret agent wearing a black vinyl cat suit, dispatching all foes with a can of secret anti-terror spray. When the authorities finally try to release him, he refuses to go: "I just want to belong," he pleads. The bigots are the grotesques of the piece, not Patrick, and when he gets himself up as a prissy telephone survey interviewer to visit his long-lost mother, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Murphy's energetic, multifaceted performance can be exhausting, but it would make a nice companion piece to Felicity Huffman's terrific turn as a pre-operative transsexual in Transamerica. Their insecurities are similar, their appeal equal. But while Murphy commands our attention, he must share the screen with some heavyweights Rea, Brendan Gleeson and, in the slyly crucial role of a country priest, Liam Neeson. At 129 minutes, Breakfast on Pluto runs a bit long, but Neil Jordan's gift for Irish tragicomedy, by way of Voltaire's fable, wins the day.