In “Comfort and Joy” (1984), Patrick Malahide had a small but significant role as Colin, doctor and best friend to Alan “Dickie” Bird (Bill Paterson, who went on to star with Malahide and Michael Gambon in “The Singing Detective“), a radio host who somehow becomes embroiled in an ice cream gang war in Glasgow while going through a difficult break-up with his girlfriend. This is a quirky, warm, and fun little movie written and directed by Bill Forsyth, who also gave us “Local Hero” (one of my faves) and “Gregory’s Girl“.
Dumped for the Holidays
As the action opens, it’s obviously pre-Christmas and a man who might be a plainclothes store detective is tailing a woman who is shoplifting up a storm. As it turns out, they’re actually a couple and Alan (for it is he) is more or less just watching Maddy’s (Eleanor David) back; he has no moral objections to what she’s doing. They have a lovely dinner, spend some intimate time together, then she abruptly begins boxing up her (mostly shoplifted) belongings and tells Alan she’s leaving him; she meant to tell him “ages ago” but never quite got around to it. Within the space of an hour or so, not only is Alan’s apartment stripped nearly bare, but he’s even been roped into helping with the moving, still in a state of shock.
Bewildered and bereft, Alan does his morning radio show (complete with some of the most obnoxiously cheerful Eighties-ish jingles you’ve ever heard) and summons Colin over to his house with the words, “I’m in deep trouble.” Colin’s a good friend and shows up, no questions asked; he commiserates with Alan, but also says he’s been given a “golden opportunity” to start over. Colin is comforting but he’s also a realist, telling Alan he can hardly expect Maddy to return “with her tail between her legs” (in fact, Alan has frequent dreams where Maddy suddenly and unexpectedly returns throughout the rest of the movie) and that he’d been “submerged in another person’s personality” and had become a “sub-person”, but now he’s “free”, which is a really interesting way of looking at it. Colin also characterizes their relationship as “something unreal about you two… like kids, playing and fighting” and “quite a caper”, which given our brief glimpse, seems pretty accurate. He’s then called away to perform a kidney transplant, which is how we discover that he’s a surgeon.
A Fateful Ice Cream
Alan is way on the rebound and starts eyeing up most of the women he sees as potential replacements for Maddy, which is how he comes to tail a “Mr. Bunny” ice cream truck with an attractive attendant inside and the most horrifically ear-wormy jingle known to humankind (“Hullo, folks!”, gaaaaaahhh!!) playing outside, to a remote location. Much to his surprise, after he finishes buying a cone, the truck is suddenly and inexplicably ambushed and trashed by masked thugs, one of whom recognizes Alan as “Dickie” Bird, asking for an autograph(!) before he flees.
Intrigued by the incident and annoyed by the vandalism by ice cream of his cherished BMW, Alan decides to get into some serious journalism and explore what seems to be an incipient ice cream war. This, in turn, leads to his boss, Hilary (Rikki Fulton), exploring his contract, specifically whether it has a “sanity clause”. Alan even goes over to Colin’s to ask his professional opinion about ice cream. Colin doesn’t know much about ice cream, but he does make the very picture of relaxed, domestic contentment as he deals with one of his daughters’ dismembered dolls (“Now, I’ve told you about amputations,” he gently chides) and invites Alan to stay over and have the honour of tucking daughter Lily (Robin Black) into bed. Alan is openly envious, calling Colin a “lucky bugger” and asking how he got so productive, which Colin (with just the barest smirk) corrects to, “Reproductive. There’s a difference.” When Colin expresses his envy of Colin’s happy domesticity, Colin replies that he was always jealous of Alan in school and only hung around with him to meet the “fast girls”, to which Alan retorts, “But you married one of them. You got one of them to keep. I don’t even have a home,” which gives us a bit more insight into his anxiety over Maddy’s leaving him.
Alan gets sucked even deeper into investigating the ice cream vendetta – it gives him something to do after being dumped, and he’s really very lonely – and discovers the whole thing is a turf war between “Mr. McCool” and the guerrilla upstart, “Mr. Bunny” and that furthermore, the two rival factions are related. He ill-advisedly attempts to broker a peace treaty, but it just ends up resulting in more damage and mayhem, in addition to the progressive destruction of his poor BMW and his boss’ growing certainty that he’s gone ’round the bend (coded messages to “Mr. Bunny” over the air during his radio show don’t help matters any). His boss even insists that Alan see a psychiatrist before he’s allowed on the air again.
A Truce is Declared
Finally, after one particularly bad dust-up between the rival ice cream gangs and another visit to Colin – who, it must be said, is remarkably good at not batting an eyelash in disbelief at the entire story, and remains a touchstone of sanity and common sense throughout – Alan arrives at a solution (inspired by Lily) that should keep both factions in an uneasy truce. He comes up with the idea for fried ice cream as a product both companies can sell, but they’re both dependent on Alan for a “secret ingredient” that makes the product possible. In return, he also insists on a percentage of the profits… and that his long-suffering BMW be repaired. The ice cream wars are over, and settled to nearly everyone’s satisfaction.
A Wonderful Little Movie
This is a wonderful and charming little movie that is unfortunately difficult to find and badly in need of a cleaned-up re-release on DVD. I saw it as a VHS rip on Youtube (link embedded below), which accounts for the poor and rather grainy quality of my grabs. “Local Hero” and “Gregory’s Girl” are relatively easy to find on DVD, and it seems a shame that “Comfort and Joy” hasn’t gotten the same treatment.
There are so many lovely (and hilarious) little touches here that it’s hard to describe them all. From the absurdity of the fiendishly insidious Mr. Bunny jingle being recorded real-time in their “secret lair”, to the notion of guerrilla ice cream trucks, and finally, to the idea of two families slugging it out over ice cream, you have to keep your eyes peeled to catch everything. And in the midst of it, we have Bill Paterson’s Alan trying to find his “new flavour” by getting involved in it all – to the tune of a truly kick-ass soundtrack by Mark Knopfler. The soundtrack on its own is well worth listening to (I heard it long before seeing the film), and I was particularly amused by the way “Private Investigations” was used in the movie. 😉
I was previously familiar with Bill Paterson from “The Singing Detective”, and it was interesting to see him in a very different role here. I could sympathize with his bewilderment and hurt over being suddenly dumped, and his desire to find some new meaning for his life.
And of course, I also must mention Patrick Malahide’s performance as Colin. He was warm, sensitive, wonderfully sane, and very real, and using a lovely Scottish accent again. In particular, his scenes with Lily (Robin Black) were charmingly domestic and full of cuteness overload – but in the best possible way! I also really enjoyed his interactions with Bill Paterson, especially his calm, reassuring, and level-headed manner of dealing with Alan’s problems. Malahide played Colin as the sort of friend who wouldn’t hesitate to help you out no matter what kind of situation you were in, and would listen without batting an eye to whatever absurd things you had to say. He’s a solid rock of stability in contrast to Alan’s upheaval and turmoil.