I’ve looked briefly at Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy in the past, but it is a film worth considering in greater detail. Also, I wanted to concentrate on a great Scottish film set around Christmas and they are few and far between, but Comfort and Joy is just that. This is his most ‘serious’ film, dealing with one man’s mid-life crisis and territorial gang wars. But this is Forsyth so we are not going to have Bergmanesque silences or Scorsese like violence. What we do get amongst the angst is ice-cream fritters, seasonal shoplifting, pokey hats on the upholstery, kunzle cakes (remember those?), ‘thrifty pops’ and the comedian Arnold Brown as a naval, and sex, obsessed psychiatrist.
Bill Patterson plays Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird, an early morning DJ whose tempestuous relationship with the beautiful, unpredictable, Maddy comes to a sudden and unexpected end, at least unexpected to him. This leads to a re-evaluation of his life which he sees as empty without Maddy, and he decides to make changes. The following scene where Maddy leaves their home is beautifully played, with Patterson particularly good as it slowly dawns on him just what is happening:
Dickie wants to be taken seriously as a ‘journalist’ and is looking for the big story that will change people’s perceptions. While flirting with ice-cream maiden Clare Grogan in traffic, he decides to follow her van to try and talk to her and accidentally uncovers an ice-cream war in Glasgow that he believes will break him in his new direction. He throws himself into trying to resolve the feuding parties problems and stave off his own loneliness and depression. Forsyth strikes a perfect balance between Dickie’s heart felt heartbreak and the knock about scenes as the Bunnys and McCools wire in to each other like a Glaswegian Sharks and Jets.
Comfort and Joy boasts a tremendous cast. Patrick Malahide is perfect as Dickie’s suave best friend Colin, a man who has the life that Dickie wishes he had. Alex Norton is Trevor, otherwise known as ‘Mr Bunny’, the new kid on the ice-cream scene whose business, and health, is under threat from rival ‘Mr McCool’.
There are two female leads in the film, and they have very different fortunes. Eleanor David’s Maddy is a great turn; infuriating, beguiling and completely believable as the woman who has broken Dickie’s heart. Clare Grogan, on the other hand, is criminally underused as Charlotte. Putting aside personal opinion, it does seem odd that one of the breakout stars from Gregory’s Girl is relegated to pouting in the background and little more. There are actually a few other Forsyth alumni with cameos in the film such as Robert Buchanan, Caroline Guthrie and Billy Greenlees. There are also two great comedy cameos; Ian McColl’s Mantovani loving nutjob Archie who takes time off from smashing headlights and heads to get an autograph and a request for his granny, and the legendary Rikki Fulton as radio station boss Hilary, resplendent in a cream suit.
This scene sees Patterson and Norton head to head, surely 1980s Scottish cinema’s equivalent of DeNiro and Pacino meeting in Heat (make of that what you will):
The only fault that I can find with Comfort and Joy is in the ending. Forsyth normally finishes a film with a flourish; think of Gregory and his sister Madeline discussing just who is Gregory’s Girl, or Mac in Local Hero, back home and lost in Houston, then the phone rings in Furness. The finale of Comfort and Joy is, in comparison, too neat and doesn’t deal with the underlying problems that Dickie has faced. It’s not a bad ending as such, just a little uninspired, and one that is at odds to the melancholic feel that the rest of the movie has, but it’s a small complaint. As the poster claims, this is ‘A Serious Comedy’, and Forsyth manages to pull off that particular balancing act with ease.
This is one of the best films from one of Scotland’s great film makers and, when the more obvious and saccharine festive films lose their attraction, reach for Comfort and Joy.