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— Pierce Brosnan, Tomorrow Never Dies

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An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

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Juvenile humor aside, Irish Jam is a winning farce about the culture clash that ensues when a Southern California rapper wins his very own Irish pub in the tiny village of Ballywood, Ireland.

Invasion of The Bloods and The Crisps

Griffin reaches for new dramatic territory
Griffin reaches for new dramatic territory

When a money-hungry English landlord wants to take over Ballywood so he can raze the li’l village and make a heap of cash on Leprechaun Land, an Irish theme park, the locals decide to raffle off their only asset, the local pub, to pay the pub’s now-delinquent mortgage, which has soared into the millions of euros.

The raffle, which takes the form of a poetry contest, draws attention ‘round the world.

Enter Jimmy “The Jam,” a rapper who’s been living much too large in Southern California and now has creditors and a jilted bride on his tail. Five dollars, a cribbed lyric, and some time later, Jimmy is surprised to find himself the winner of the pub. “I’ve always wanted to live on an island,” he says.

When the villagers and their pub’s new landlord get a good look at each other, each finds the other lacking in charms. Some of the more conservative villagers are shocked that they’ve awarded the pub to a black guy (a “Yank,” no less), while Jimmy “The Jam” fails to locate the tanned, well-endowed “native girls” he was expecting. “It ain’t Jamaica, but I’m gonna ja-make the best of it,” he declares.

Yet Irish Jam rises above these lapses into lame humor enough to make you care about the shared fate of this goofy two-bit hustler and small band of Irish people who share a pub – and some history.

He’s Black and He’s Proud

Eddie Griffin, probably best known as the fast-talking Undercover Brother, reaches for new dramatic territory here. When the sparks fly between Jimmy and the Irish widow Maureen, luminously acted by Anna Friel, he must win her over on her terms. She doesn’t understand Jimmy at all, with his urban black accent, his stated preference for women of a certain build, and his quest to make a quick buck.

Griffin’s earnest-yet-self-obsessed Jimmy reminded me of Spike Lee (especially his black counterpoint to Woody Allen in She’s Gotta Have It). His new-found ability to listen, Friel’s genuine responses to Jimmy’s clumsy pleas, and some of the humor make this comic drama worth seeing.

Another reason to stick around for the predictable but well-earned ending is Maureen’s daughter, the quiet Kathleen (Tallulah Pitt-Brown in her first feature, looking like a young clone of Jennifer Connelly). When the pre-teen girl first peered out from behind her mother’s skirt, I predicted that if you introduce someone silenced by tragedy in the first act, she’ll have to do something new by the third. I was right, but regardless of her reluctance to talk, she gives a fine performance.

Common Ground

Irish Jam’s actors and writers all deserve credit for creating a winning film (when we’re not being bombarded with teenage-level gags about body part sizes or apparitions like the turkey-drumstick wielding “Psycho,” played by singer Mo’nique).

A couple of characters get the chance to give mini-lectures about history that illustrate some of what American blacks and Irish have in common, as do some of the gags (“I watched The Commitments seven times,” says Jimmy to Maureen. “I thought Jungle Fever was, how do you say it, ‘All good!’,” Maureen responds.) “When Kennedy became president, do you know what one journalist said?” asks Grandpa Duffy. “The journalist said, ‘Now the Irish are almost white.’”

In another scene, Jimmy describes Lincoln’s promised bequest of 40 acres and a mule to the slaves he was about to free, and the way he frames the anecdote shows that the people involved in Irish Jam were thinking about more than how to make the quickest buck from a cross-cultural dramatic comedy.

Amidst all that comes a convincing love affair that is largely initiated through music as Jimmy does his rapper shtick to the Irish musicians’ backbeat. The love affair develops between not just Maureen and Jimmy but also between him and her and Kathleen as a family. (I’m not spoiling anything here. You get just what you’d expect when you see the DVD box; this is not a documentary.)