Given its title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “Brooklyn” was a movie about lumbersexual hipsters, all named Zach, opening a single-origin, gluten-free artisanal mac-and-cheese shop in Fort Point, and the zany complications that arise when they realize two bathrooms are inadequate to serve the diverse needs of their multi-gender clientele.
Ah, that would be a movie to see, but director John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” is about the good old days in that NYC ‘hood. “Good old days” meaning, well, not the explosive race-riot Brooklyn of the 1980s seen in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” nor the scuzzy violent ’70s depicted in “Saturday Night Fever.” No, this is the clean, safe, friendly Brooklyn of the ’50s, all hands-off dates, egg creams and kindly parish priests. You know, like in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”
Snarkiness aside, however, “Brooklyn” seems like some Disney gated-community version of the borough, heavy on nostalgia and light on muggings. It’s an ode to New York City as the land of opportunity, where stolid Irish-Catholic immigrants could make something of themselves. Our heroine is Ellis (Saoirse Rohan), a young woman from the small town of Enniscorthy, Ireland, who lives with her widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and sister (Fiona Glascott). Bored with the town’s boys and her part-time job as a clerk, Ellis decides to emigrate.
The lack of dramatic tension is startling. Unlike an earlier generation of emigres, Ellis is fleeing neither famine nor political strife but ennui. Her local priest has already set up a job and an apartment in Brooklyn for her, so pretty much all she has to do is get on the boat, which involves teary goodbyes, seasickness and sage advice from an experienced immigrant lass: “Think like an American. You have to know where you’re going.”
Stop and think about that one for a second, and you realize it’s not really saying anything — which holds true for most of this tepid film. It’s not clear whether we should blame author Colm Toibin or screenplay adapter Nick Hornby for “Brooklyn” wasting its good cast on such brogue-inflected bromides.
Ellis’ new life in NYC turns out to be a small circle of church, work and the boarding house run by Irish matron Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), where the girls are persnickety gossips, as bad as any small-town caws. Ellis is still a clerk — albeit at an upscale department store where those awfully frank Americans teach her how to make eye-contact and small talk — and she still goes to social dances in the hopes of meeting a boy who’s not too dim, when into her life comes awkward but earnest Italian-American Tony. (And in a film where nearly every Irish role is played by an Irish actor, Tony is played by Emory Cohen, who’s of Russian-Jewish descent. But never mind, all those types look the same, don’t they, Mr. Crowley?)
Ellis learns how to put on a little makeup, Tony learns how to make a move, and they go to “the pictures.” Surely whatever Hollywood classic they saw, it was more entertaining than this. All is going swimmingly, until Ellis has to suddenly return home due to a family tragedy. She promises Tony she’ll be back, but Brooklyn boys aren’t born yesterday, so he convinces her to get married the night before she leaves.
Once home in Eire, Ellis finds all sorts of pressure on her to stay, and her determination to return to America erodes further when she meets awkward but earnest rugby dude Jim, played by the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson. Torn between two countries, two lives, two loves, she — ah, bollocks.
This subplot wouldn’t even be happening if Ellis had bothered to tell someone that she was married, but she doesn’t, and for no good reason except that this is a movie aimed at a young female demographic, and Rule No. 1 for such films is the heroine must always have two boys pursuing her. No prizes for guessing she’s going to dump one, but cinema has rarely seen a break-up so free of consequences. Epic romance this is not.