Comfort and Joy
directed by Bill Forsyth
starring Bill Paterson, Patrick Malahide, Claire Grogan, Alex Norton, and Roberto Bernardi
Alan Bird is getting nothing he wants this Christmas…
What an intriguing tagline for a Christmas film set in the consumerist 1980s. As I approached my sixteenth birthday in mid-October 1984, I had but one request for my best friend at the time, and that was to go and see the film that bore that tagline, Comfort and Joy, the then newest feature by the director of Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, Bill Forsyth. The insistence of that odd request—odd because my friend wasn’t exactly in the mood for a holiday film in October—was due to the intrinsic connection I had felt with Forsyth’s humor from the two aforementioned films I had seen by that time. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it then, as both films seemed to extract their comedic elements from the observations made by Forsyth of his native Scotland, a place that was, for me, about a million miles away from the intense happenings of my neighborhood in South Philadelphia. Regardless, there was a loud absurdity contained in the small gestures and dialog of Forsyth’s work that somehow mirrored the extreme reactions to virtually everything imaginable that I observed where I had grown up.
I suppose that the best example of my specific regional absurdist reality that registered with me early on was the witnessing of two fully-grown and nicely-dressed adults screaming at each other at full volume at an outdoor market while narrowly coming to blows over the diminutive size and ripeness of a parcel of recently purchased pears. As the befuddled twelve year old me tried to determine the need for an irate yelling match over handfruit, the comedy of the incident hit home when I noticed that everyone who was walking past the quarreling couple wasn’t paying them any mind. I laughed, and when similar incidents would occur in front of me in the years that followed while I lived there, I simply giggled to myself and chalked them up to the nature of 1980s South Philadelphia.
As a very young man, I admittedly knew very little about Scotland, the location of both Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, so as I watched the films’ vastly different conflicts unfold and resolve, I was enthralled by how the issues of each feature were handled by Forsyth, who always depicted the shortcomings of his characters in a way that utilized the ridiculousness of their actions for a good laugh, while never completely humiliating them in the process. Was this storytelling technique specifically an invention of Forsyth’s, or was it simply just a reflection of the Scottish national identity and their particular philosophy on dealing with strife and embarrassment? A clue to the answer lies in Local Hero, but for me, as an Italian-American, the Italian-Scottish diaspora seen in Comfort and Joy would go miles further in helping me make my decision on why Forsyth’s films resonated with me so well.
Set in Glasgow at Christmastime, Comfort and Joy is the story of Alan “Dickie” Bird (a perfectly casted Bill Paterson), a morning drive-time radio disc jockey, who delights his adoring audiences with a selection of Scottish musical favorites and light humor, which Forsyth brilliantly juxtaposes against a slew of news stories of political infighting, civil war in faraway lands, and the pregnancy of the city zoo’s gifted panda. Behind the mic, Alan appears to be full of holiday mirth, but we, as the film’s audience, know by this point that all is not well with Alan, as we have just watched his longtime live-in girlfriend, a gorgeous kleptomaniac named Maddy (Eleanor David), pick up and move out on him without provocation or reason. Distraught over the loss of his love, Alan seeks out consoling from his kindly best friend, Colin (Patrick Malahide), a respected surgeon, who does his best to assuage his friend’s broken heart by reminding him of his new found freedom, while alternately underscoring the childlike behaviors that Alan and Maddy exhibited together as a couple. Somewhat shaken by Colin’s accusation that he is less of an adult, Alan immediately departs his now empty apartment for a trip to the store to buy some pots and pans like a proper adult, but the purchase of these practical home goods seemingly does little to restore Alan’s self-esteem or bolster his spirits, and so he returns to his pristine cherry-red BMW to move aimlessly around the city like a lost child at the the supermarket.
While on his nomadic journey, Alan catches a smile from a lovely woman (Claire Grogan) riding in the rear of an adjacent Mr. Bunny ice cream truck, and so, smitten by her smile and with nothing else to lose, Alan takes a cue from Lewis Carroll’s Alice and follows this bunny through a tunnel and out into a world that he had never thought possible. Driving farther and farther away from town, Mr. Bunny finally comes to a stop in a remote Glasgow suburb to sell a 99 or two. Alan musters up the courage to talk to the woman, but fails to make a connection. As he walks away, a group of thugs wildly descend on the ice cream truck with bats and pipes. Alan is at first shocked and confused, but then finds the whole matter amusing, especially when he sees the truck shambolically drive away as its broken jingle chimes sadly through the air. However, he quickly realizes that his investigation of the episode could potentially lead him on a new path, one where he can become a serious journalist who could finally be respected by his peers. Thus, Alan picks up a tape recorder and trench coat and sets out to do his finest Woodward and Bernstein imitation to get to the bottom of some underground crime network, but what he actually uncovers is a bizarre quarrel between two rival Italian factions, Mr. Bunny and Mr. McCool, who are acting like children themselves as they wage a turf war over the control of ice cream sales in Glasgow in the dead of winter.
Having no better prospects in sight for Alan to pick up some much needed maturity points, he pushes forward to resolve this “ice cream war,” and takes on the dubious role of intermediary betwixt the clans, which also leaves our hero with the unenviable task of having to explain his pseudo-nefarious actions to his good-natured boss Hillary (Rikki Fulton), a slightly immature man in his own right, who begins to suspect that Alan has gone off the deep end due to his rants about a Mr. Bunny that eerily smack of Jimmy Stewart’s cottontail machination, Harvey. With his job on the line, as well as his favorite toy, his candy-red BMW, in regular peril, should Alan help save the Mr. Bunnies?
Throughout Comfort and Joy, Forsyth cunningly executes a distinct blending of adult responsibilities with excesses of all kinds, be it the over-consumption of sweets or unexpected escalations of anger, along the backdrop of Christmastime, which altogether accentuate the inherent child that manifests itself in all of us during the holiday season. In this mix, he also tosses in plays on the cultural characteristics that would cause a clash between the Scottish and Italian characters in his film in order to establish the full spectrum of excess that we decide to partake in or sit out from throughout our lives. This cultural-contrast technique to stress the universal nature of man might seem familiar to fans of Forsyth’s work, as he also used the gregarious character of Victor, the wayward Russian sailor, to contrast to the American all-business/no fun MacIntyre in his earlier film, Local Hero. In that film, both MacIntyre and Victor play off of their national identities in an idyllic Scottish town in order for us to see that no matter where we are from, the grass will somehow always seem greener somewhere else, and yet despite the differences, there is a united desire for a “better” life, one that often moves toward the usual goals of a consumerist, Western society. Similarly, the Scottish-Italians in Comfort and Joy, led by Mr. McCool (Roberto Bernardi) and Mr.Bunny/Trevor (Alex Norton), consistently express themselves in an intense manner that never feels cartoonish or exploitative to me as a person of Italian descent, and though they seem in direct contrast with the reserved Scots like Alan and Hilary, all of the adults in our film here are still mostly behaving like little kids fueled by too many cookies who aren’t quite happy with their presents under the tree on Christmas morning.
Some thirty-six years after its release, I still regard Comfort and Joy as Bill Forsyth’s unequivocal masterpiece. It is a subtly complex and outrageously funny work that he made during a decade when he wrote and directed an impressive string of features that evolved screen comedies in a way that has been repeatedly imitated by filmmakers. Unfortunately, most of the films that attempt his style only seek to exploit the quirkiness that lies on the surface of the kind of characters that Forsyth created, and thus fail to construct a well thought out and universally encompassing narrative that was his trademark. Forsyth’s rare gifts as a storyteller allowed us to empathize with his protagonists as we would empathize with our own neighbors, and see their missteps as we would see our own. In Comfort and Joy, he uses his signature approach to celebrate what it means to be an adult—to know and accept yourself, which for Alan Bird means savoring the spontaneity, absurdity, loudness, and excesses of life alongside his responsibilities as a professional disc jockey, even if it causes a toothache or a busted headlight or two.
I’ve often wondered if Alan would have chased Mr. Bunny if he had encountered him outside of Christmastime, the season when we are all forgiven when we regress into child-like states. I don’t think so, because through the Christmas season lens, Alan is able to see a wider emotional range and accept it as something he needs in his life, and through Bill Forsyth’s lens on Alan and Glasgow throughout Comfort and Joy, I was able to find humor and humanity in the excesses and sometimes volatile expressions around me and accept how important they would be to who I became as an adult.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Forsyth, and thank you.