Breakfast on Pluto (2005): Neil (Crying Game) Jordan’s Honorable Failure

Neil Jordan has written and directed some of the most provocative and topical films of the past two decades, including “Mona Lisa,” “The Crying Game,” and “The Butcher Boy.” “Breakfast on Pluto” marks Jordan’s second collaboration with writer Patrick McCabe, adapting the latter’s 1992 novel, but the film is not as successful as their first teaming, “Butcher Boy,” arguably Jordan’s masterpiece.

Though ambitious, “Breakfast on Pluto” is an honorable failure, a “tweener” of a film that’s neither epic nor intimate enough, neither consistently campy nor earnest. The main problem is that the central character, a “holy innocent” transvestite who gets caught in Irish revolutionary politics, is not interesting enough to sustain engagement. When the offbeat saga ends, we are left with a bittersweet taste, inevitably wondering whether it was worth sitting through his tumultuous odyssey.

The title comes from a 1970s song by Don Partridge, a one-man-band folkie by the name of “King of the London Buskers.” “Breakfast on Pluto” is a disappointingly sprawling saga that gets increasingly repetitious and tiresome. With a running time of 135 minutes, the film overextends its welcome by at least half an hour.

Jordan’s films have reflected a passion for politically and sexually charged material with a particular spiritual dimension. Like Jordan’s best films, “Breakfast on Pluto” is dense in ideas and metaphors, but unlike them it lacks discernible perspective or a clear POV. It’s hard to tell what Jordan thinks of his troubled character since he devotes most of his energy to cataloguing Patrick’s personal and political adventures (See detailed synopsis at the end).

The novelistic structure of the film, which is divided into 36 brief chapters (with cute and not so cute titles), makes the film even more episodic than it is. It also prevents sustained interest or emotional involvement with the story or character.

Echoing a similar episode in “The Crying Game,” the first scene depicts a fashionable beauty (Cillian Murphy) ambling down the street pushing a pram. Construction workers whistle and catcall on the scaffolding above, but she’s quick with a salty retort, “my story, the story of Patrick “Kitten” Braden, is too strong stuff for you.”

Plot proper begins in Tyreelin, Ireland in 1958, from a bird’s eye view. The early-bird robins witness a blonde woman deposit a baby on the doorstep of the parish presbytery. Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), as the gossiping robins report, hasn’t looked the same since the blonde housekeeper had left him.

The foundling is consigned to the foster care of Ma Braden (Ruth McCabe), a pub owner. A decade later, Ma is outraged to find young Patrick (Conor McEvoy) wearing his stepsister’s dress and applying her lipstick. Disgustedly, Ma rues the “cursed day” she took him in. With the revelation that Ma is not his mother, Patrick’s burning desireand film’s running motifis to find out his birth mother, an issue that recalls River Phoenix’s character in Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.”

Patrick is told three truths: that his mother was Eily Bergin (Eva Birthistle), the prettiest girl in town; that she resembled film star Mitzi Gaynor; and that he spotted her once in London. “The biggest city in the world swallowed my mother up,” Patrick says, whenever asked about him Mom.

Jordan’s chief concern is that of survival: How does a person like Patrick/Kitten survive a deeply aggressive world just by being himself To that extent, he turns the harsh objective reality into a subjective fairy tale that Patrick creates out of his life. Jordan has said that he was inspired by Candide,” Voltaire’s fable of an eternal optimist who maintains that he lives in the “best of all possible worlds,” even as ruin and mayhem envelop him. In this version of “Candide,” Patrick insanely insists on seeing the world as a beautiful place; he never really loses even when he loses everything.

For all the tumult of Patrick’s life, “Breakfast on Pluto” is darkly funny. The film’s events are tragic, but Patrick turns them into a comic reality, which fits into the Irish tragicomic storytelling tradition, beginning with the writings of Sean O’Casey. Nonetheless, Jordan shows problems with balancing the film’s grotesque and macabre elements with its more serious ones. Indeed, due to radical shifts in tone, from high camp to earnest political insights, “Breakfast on Pluto” never finds its right mood.

There are obvious parallels between “Breakfast on Pluto” and “The Crying Game,” since both films deal with transvestitism and terrorism. However, “Breakfast on Pluto” is more of a companion piece to “The Butcher Boy,” both of which feature childhoods warped by that strange Irish mixture of social pressures and madness.

Ultimately, “Breakfast on Pluto” is less about politics and more about a “holy innocent” like Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, or Dustin Hoffman’s idiot savant in “Rain Man,” a beautiful soul that always wins in the end, because he has more grace, humor, and charity than all the grotesques and violence around him. Seeing the whole world through songs, Patrick believed in the naive hopefulness of the lyrics of pop songs, which explains the powerful role that music plays in the movie; there are over 30 period songs (See Film Comment).

Obviously, Jordan tries to draw unsettling parallels between the film’s period and today’s precarious world, particularly after the London bombings, a world where you can go into a bar for a drink and the bar explodes.

The film revolves around themes of sexual identity, set against 1960s and 1970s Ireland, a tumultuous period socially and politically. Nonetheless, since Patrick’s sexual identity is not problematic–he knows exactly who he is and doesn’t need to fight for the legitimacy of his persona–the film lacks dramatic interest and has nowhere to go after the first reel other than detail Patrick’s adventures and misadventures. This narrative problem may also explain why Cillian Murphy’s eccentric performance gets progressively monotonous.

Detailed Description of the Plot:

In his grim childhood, Patrick befriends Charlie (Bianca O’Connor), Irwin (Emmet Lawlor McHugh), and the intrepid Laurence (Seamus Reilly), who has Down’s syndrome. Together, they “die for Ireland” as gun-toting IRA rebels, and annihilate the town with Laurence in killer-robot (“Dalek”) gear.

A few years later, Patrick (Murphy), now a teen sporting glam-rock mascara (Murphy), steams open a letter to Ma containing a check from Father Bernard. Since childhood, the church confessional has been the site of Patrick’s encounters with an uncomfortable Father Bernard, for reasons that will become clear.

To the outrage of Patrick’s schoolmasters, he submits an essay describing in detail the imagined story of Father Bernard ravishing his innocent housekeeper. Efforts at school and home to squelch Patrick’s outrageousness merely incite him to further flamboyance, and a new persona is born, “Kitten.” Androgynous Kitten turns heads and provokes would-be bashers when he hits the local dance club with faithful friends Charlie (Ruth Negga), Irwin (Laurence Kinlan), and Laurence.

The story if full of random adventures, one more eccentric than the other. Hence, escaping from violent toughs, the friends are rescued by a gang of bikers who turn them on to mysticism and good dope. The biker chief (Liam Cunningham) croons about cruising the highways, “eating breakfast on Pluto.” The idyllic night is an eye-opener for Patrick, who determines to get out of town and expand his mind.

Most colorful and bizarre encounter is with Billy Rock and the Mohawks, a band blending rock, glam makeup, and Wild West Indian themes. To the dismay of his fellows, the seemingly straight Billy Rock (Gavin Friday) takes a romantic shine to Patrick, who sees Billy as his knight-protector. The honeymoon’s tarnished, however, by Patrick’s singing (dressed in Indian squaw regalia), which gets the band booed off the stage.

Billy sets Patrick up in a rundown caravan trailer inherited it from his mother. Busily tidying the dumpy caravan, fussing and cooking, Patrick is delighted to play Kitten in her own home. Patrick is aware of Billy’s pro-IRA sentiments, but he refuses to be alarmed by the guns. “Oh, serious, serious, serious!” Ptarick/Kitten says, imitating Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara retort, “Fiddle-dee-dee!” in “Gone With the Wind.”

Though Tyreelin’s on the Irish Republic side of the border, its proximity to Northern Ireland brings the civil war close to home. A bomb-seeking robot, eerily similar to Laurence’s “Dalek” costume, approaches, and Patrick watches in horror as Laurence dies in the explosion.

This proves a turning point for Patrick and one of many subsequent losses. After Lawrence’s funeral, Patrick dumps the guns into the sea. His defiant mannerand his mention of friendship with Irwinconvinces the IRA men that he’s “not worth the bullet.”

Patrick then heads to London to seek the Phantom Lady, the elusive Eily Bergin, but the information he gets from the Records Office is inaccurate. With nowhere to go, he stumbles upon a fairy-tale castle that’s part of a “Wombles” kiddie theme park, where he’s recruited by John-Joe (Brendan Gleeson), a boozy man dressed up in a “Wombles” costume as “Uncle Bulgaria.”

Patrick is rescued from a hooker protecting her turf, when a posh Mercedes, driven by suave Mr. Silky String (Bryan Ferry), picks him up. Patrick plays the flirty Kitten, but the older man is no sugar daddy; he’s a murderer out to strangle a pick-up. Patrick barely escapes thanks to a close-range blast of Channel 5 to his attacker’s eyes.

Fortune turns for Patrick yet again, when the kindly Bertie (Stephen Rae), a cheap-suit magician is besotted with Kitten’s tragic orphan’s tale. Kitten is incorporated into Bertie’s act, getting sawed and playing the shill in a hypnotist routine. There’s a cruel edge to the fun, however, when Kitten is asked to pretend believing that various persons and objects are her long-lost Mummy. The idyllic bond is interrupted by Charlie, who’s appalled by Kitten’s humiliation.

Kitten dances happily with a soldier, when an explosion rips a disco apart. Suspected as the bomber, he’s taken to the police station, where Routledge (Steven Waddington) and Wallis (Ian Hart) play good cop/bad cop. Asked to make a statement, Patrick spins a yarn of infiltrating a terrorist cell, dressed in black leather and armed with nothing but a Chanel spray bottle. After a week of no results, the cops concede their mistake. Patrick prefers the relative safety of his cell, but he’s kicked out, again.

Days later, Wallis, the “bad cop,” takes a protective interest and introduces Patrick to
a group of ex-hookers who have formed their own peepshow. In a scene that recalls “Paris, Texas,” Father Bernard communicates his love through the one-way mirror of Kitten’s peep booth. To compensate for his lack of attention, he tells Patrick where to find Eily Bergin.

Kitten arrives at Eily’s pretending to conduct a user survey for British Telecom. Unaware of Kitten’s identity, Eily, who’s just an average housewife, is politely impersonal, but Kitten’s half-brother, also named Patrick, is friendlier. Patrick returns to Tyreelin and Father Bernard, and all is forgiven between them.

Bernard has been sheltering Charlie in the presbytery, and the three form a mnage that sets the local gossips’ tongues. A new family, comprised of a priest, unwed pregnant girl, and a transvestite, is formed. For Bernard, this new-made family represents happy liberation from loneliness and guilt, but to the stifling small town, it’s an outrage. Soon, a Molotov cocktail, hurled through the presbytery’s window, destroys the church and presbytery, but Father Bernard escapes with Charlie and Patrick

The film ends up symmetrically. After Charlie gives birth to Irwin’s boy, the story goes to the beginning. Pushing Charlie’s baby down a London street, Patrick bumps into Eily and his stepbrother, before being joined by Father Bernard, Bertie, and John-Joe.