Comfort and Joy

A writer-director named Bill Forsyth has been carving out a special niche for himself in world cinema. Over the last five years, the Scotsman has been delighting audiences with such wonderful pieces of skewed whimsy as That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, and Local Hero.

These films share Forsyth’s absolutely dry sense of humor, as well as his feeling for low-key ensemble acting. Miraculously, without ever seeming drippy or cute (and without ever tooting their own horn about it), they manage to make you feel exceptionally good.

His newest film, Comfort and Joy, carries on this tradition, I’m glad to say. Forsyth, working in his native Glasgow, has this time decided to show us how funny a series of personal disasters can be.

The disasters happen to Alan Bird (Bill Paterson), a disc jockey known to one and all as “Dickie” Bird. It’s Christmas week, but let heaven and nature not sing. Out of a clear blue sky, Dickie’s girlfriend leaves him, taking with her everything in their apartment. A friend visits and insists that this represents a new chance for Dickie to define himself.

Dickie’s not so sure. Frankly, he feels utterly at sea—until one night, he witnesses something that galvanizes him. When he spots a pretty girl (Clare Grogan) in an ice cream truck, he follows the truck until it stops, whereupon he buys a cone and saunters away. Suddenly, the truck is attacked by hooded vandals who bash out the windows. One of them pauses long enough to ask Dickie for his autograph.

It’s the beginning of an adventure in espionage. It turns out rival ice cream companies are warring. The Mr. McCool people control the city, and the upstart Mr. Bunny organization is cutting in. Dickie becomes a liaison between the two factions, risking life and limb—well, maybe only limb—to find a solution.

Meanwhile, he’s communicating strange coded messages during his morning radio show: “Mr. Bunny, meet me tonight at the usual place—it’s urgent.” People are starting to wonder about good old Dickie.

You can sense that Forsyth and his marvelous group of actors are working with the merest wisps of plot. What they capture so beautifully are the details that make up the lives of these characters—ways of talking, of eating, of exchanging concern. Absurd elements always find their way into Forsyth’s movies, but he keeps them from being stupid by never violating the dramatic underpinnings of his situations.

For instance, this Dickie Bird fellow has an enjoyably madcap time of it, but Forsyth doesn’t let his loneliness be forgotten—much of Bird’s spirit at this time comes from his desire to fill up empty hours with something alive and risky.

Forsyth has said the film was partially inspired by the music of Mark Knopfler, the leader of the rock bad Dire Straits, who composed the evocative score for Comfort and Joy (as he did with Local Hero).

Although the title seems to be ironic at the beginning of the film—when even the birds are mistreating Bird by bombing his car—at the end we see that a lot of people have found comfort and joy along the way. And the title is also a perfect description of the film’s effect on an audience. It’s not a blockbuster, it won’t win Oscars, but Comfort and Joy is going to make you feel just fine.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

Perhaps you sense that I love Bill Forsyth’s films. I remember being underwhelmed at first about this one—what, you mean it isn’t at the level of Local Hero?—but it’s a lovely picture anyway. The (mostly) absence of Forsyth from the world cinema stage is one of the great losses in movies of the last 30 years.

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