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Say the Right Thing

Irish. Sex. Farce. These are not three words you see snuggled up together very often. Given the ironclad no-noes of the Catholic Church, the preoccupations imposed by their political troubles for the last eight centuries or so, and frequent commutes to the local pub, the Irish probably haven't had much time or inclination to cavort like horny Frenchmen -- at least not in their movies. It amounts to a minor miracle, then, that a quick-witted, spicy Irish comedy called About Adam now trades so successfully on the naughty notion that a pretty Dublin singer's charming new beau, himself a son of the Old Sod, not only loves her but comes to love her entire family -- in the literal, unclothed, between-the-sheets sense.

The perpetrator of this outlandish cultural heresy is Gerard Stembridge, a popular Irish playwright whose works include, of all things, a country-and-western version of The Comedy of Errors (mounted at the fabled Abbey Theatre) and the international hit The Gay Detective. Stembridge's comic sensibility is probably just the right one to overturn the assumption, too common on this side of the Atlantic, that Ireland is a land of whiskey-fogged priests, overcooked pot roast, and sweet fairy tales related by kindly uncles in acting-school brogues. If we can believe Stembridge and a high-spirited cast led by Almost Famous's Kate Hudson, Dublin is hip. There's more to life than scoring plastic explosives for the IRA. And middle-class twentysomethings on the Emerald Isle are just as obsessed with having sex, building useful careers, and holding their lives together as their counterparts in L.A., Denver, and New York. One thing is different, though, one that even we tongue-tied Yanks have noticed: The Irish speak the language beautifully and respect it as in days of yore.

The eventual object of everyone's affections in Stembridge's canny scheme is a handsome, mysterious lad called Adam (Stuart Townsend), who has a way of always saying the right thing. The initial object of his affections is Lucy Owens (Hudson), a waitress and saloon singer who goes through boyfriends like so many pints of Guinness. "I just can't make up my mind," the pretty young thing laments. But when she meets this new fellow she's smitten -- and not just by the Jaguar he drives. "God's gift," she swoons. "I'm ready to take a leap into the unknown."

Unknown is right. As we soon learn, our boy is an enthusiastic chameleon at best and a pathological liar at worst. With Lucy he plays the dashing man about town. But when he meets Lucy's bookish sister Laura (Frances O'Connor), he starts talking art cinema and quoting just-filched lines from Rossetti. In the company of the unhappily married sister, Alice (Charlotte Bradley), he conjures up another fiction, one that seems to offer her freedom. In time he even has the girls' batty mum (Rosaleen Linehan) and their confused brother David (Alan Maher) hypnotized. Adam, who's the only temptation in the Owens family's Eden, may be conniving, but in this light-stepping comedy, we can't really call him treacherous. "I like to give people what they want, if I can," he tells us. And if that means the groom wants a quickie with the sister of his bride on the day of their wedding, so be it. Stembridge is less interested in moralizing than in exploring psychological quirks -- and in gleefully yanking our chains.

His story -- which has an uncanny capacity for combining farce with an undercurrent of dead-serious fantasy -- is called About Adam, but it's really much more concerned with the jangled dynamics of the Owens family. While not quite dysfunctional, they have a potential for dangerous imbalance, and the intrusion of a captivating newcomer who seems to be all things to all people certainly clouds their vision. Stembridge seasons the proceedings nicely with bedroom slapstick, close calls involving Adam's assignations and a few comic tricks that turn, Rashomon-style, on the varying perceptions of different people experiencing the same events. This ploy, which has playwright written all over it, is no particular hardship on the willing viewer.

There's no use letting slip how the romantic entanglements Adam sets into motion play out, except to say that a less good-natured filmmaker working in a less buoyant setting might have been tempted to splatter a little blood on the scenery. As it is, Stembridge and his vivid characters seem to be having much too good a time (this just in: Kate Hudson sings) to get anyone's emotions into terminal disorder. The Monsignor down at the parish house may not approve of the bawdy shenanigans we experience in the new, improved, and thoroughly up-to-date Dublin, but as Irish films go, this one is a revelation and a breath of fresh air. Absent working-class prizefighters, doomed Republican gunmen, and any of the old poetic whimsy whatsoever, it gives us an entirely new view of a very old country

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Bill Gallo

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