Among other things, Neil Jordan’s rambling, irresistibly whimsical new movie, “Breakfast on Pluto,” makes mincemeat of the idea that torture is effective.
Accused of being a terrorist at a London club bombing, the transvestite hero, Patrick (Cillian Murphy), is coerced into a confession that leads the authorities nowhere. Using his favorite perfume as a deadly spray, he imagines himself kicking away his adversaries, triumphing over them with a lethal flick of the wrist.
It’s pure fantasy, though it’s based on fact. Patrick did once use perfume spray to disarm one of his more aggressive tricks (Bryan Ferry), and he can’t resist expanding on the episode for the benefit of his interrogator (Ian Hart). Furious when he realizes he’s been had, Hart’s character can’t resist the kid’s charm and resilience, and he even helps him find a way to make himself employable.
A foster child who longs to find his mother, Patrick can’t abide what he calls the “very, very serious” side of life in 1970s Ireland: bombings, betrayals, gun-running, IRA politics. He compensates by creating a rich gender-bender persona. In the process, he makes himself indispensable in the lives of a kindly priest (Liam Neeson), an outwardly macho singer(Gavin Friday), a silly magician (Stephen Rea) and a pregnant pal (Ruth Negga).
Essential to Patrick’s alternative view of reality is trashy pop music, everything from “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” to “The Windmills of Your Mind” to “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,” which drive the stupefyingly eclectic soundtrack. No introduction, no seduction, is complete without an accompanying ballad, preferably one that makes you squirm when you realize you remember every word.
Based on a 1998 novel by Patrick McCabe (who also wrote the book that inspired Jordan’s “The Butcher Boy”), Jordan and McCabe’s screenplay is an uneven blend of brutality and comedy. It flirts with Disney-cute touches (gossipy robins are provided with subtitles) and it doesn’t always have enough narrative material to justify its 134-minute running time.
At the same time, major actors such as Brendan Gleeson and Eamonn Owens (the “Butcher Boy” himself) appear to have been left on the cutting-room floor. They stop in for cameos, then they’re gone. Even Rea, the standout in the supporting cast, has less to do than you might expect.
Yet the movie clicks as a vehicle for Murphy, whose otherworldly looks made him such a scary villain in “Red Eye” and “Batman Begins” — and so convincing as a zombie killer in “28 Days Later.” This is clearly his breakthrough role, and he’s fearlessly goofy in it. Whether Patrick is clashing with authority or hooking up with a rockabilly band or becoming a magician’s assistant, Murphy suggests the character’s ready-for-anything playfulness as well as his vulnerability. (Conor McEvoy, who plays Patrick as a cross-dressing 10-year-old, is also a live wire.)
“Breakfast on Pluto” often suggests an Irish variation on the Off-Broadway rock musical, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” And just as every “Hedwig” production depends on a dynamic Hedwig to carry it, Jordan’s movie has the Patrick it needs.