Sparkling Twit

Washington City Paper | December 23, 2005
There are two ways you can take Patrick “Kitten” Braden, the Irish transvestite at the center of Breakfast on Pluto: (1) as a long-suffering but ever-hopeful boy/girl who just wants to find love, be it from the mother who abandoned him or one of the many men who like the cut of his cheekbones, or (2) as an irritating twit whose idea of femininity comprises ditzy cheer, breathy come-ons, and quick, smothering intimacy.

But even if you choose the latter, you’ll most likely feel a little bad for Kitten (Cillian Murphy) whenever Bobby Goldsboro’s mournful “Honey” plays in the background. Something of a theme song of Kitten’s, the string-laden 1968 hit gets three spins during Neil Jordan’s 135-minute latest. Naturally, Kitten doesn’t identify with the song’s gut-wrenched husband; rather, he sees himself as poor Honey—someone who dies tragically young, putting her lover through unimaginable pain and guilt. Almost immediately after meeting them, Kitten asks three separate suitors, “If you came home and found me on the floor, would you take me to the hospital?”

Beneath his otherworldly loveliness, you see, Kitten is a wounded soul. As the son of an Irish Catholic priest, Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), and his blond housekeeper, Eily (Eva Birthistle)—allegedly a dead ringer for actress Mitzi Gaynor—he couldn’t be anything but. Eily leaves little Patrick on Father Bernard’s doorstep, though he’s soon given to a curmudgeonly foster mother who reacts quite badly when she first finds him putting on dresses and makeup. (“‘I’m a boy, not a girl!’” she makes the 10-year-old (Conor McEvoy) repeat, adding “I curse the day I ever took yuh in!” for good measure.) Patrick’s trouble with authority only gets worse at school, where he’s always being dragged by the ear to the principal’s office, once for using a composition assignment to imagine his parents’ coupling.

Co-written by Jordan and Patrick McCabe, on whose novel the film is based, Pluto speeds through Kitten’s life, divided into 36 “chapters” that visit the character’s most influential experiences. The gist of this haphazardly told story is that Kitten wants to find his “Phantom Lady” Mom even more than he wants to be a girl—not that the latter really takes much effort. After leaving small-town Tyreelin for London, where Eily is supposed to live, Kitten seems to attract only men who know exactly what they’re getting into. In a wink at The Crying Game, Stephen Rea plays a magician who tells Kitten he could fall for “a girl like you.” When Kitten tells him he’s not a girl, the magician replies, “I know. I said a girl like you.”

Jordan uses plenty of music besides “Honey” to steer the viewer through the narrative’s various sharp turns. Overwhelmingly bouncy ’70s pop (the Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love,” Harry Nilsson’s “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” ) predominates, symbolically punctuated with slit-yer-wrist-ers (Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times”). The director also throws in digitized birds, cheeky subtitles, Bryan Ferry, a member of the Virgin Prunes, and the inevitable lamé-clad fantasy sequence. Relentlessly loopy, the film aims to prove that, aside from the love of a wee lost boy for his mam, sass and sparkle conquer all.

The songs, at least, keep Pluto skipping breezily through its running time. Whether they’re enough to keep you sympathetic toward Kitten is another issue. Murphy’s role is obviously quite a contrast to his other 2005 characters, Batman Begins’ the Scarecrow and the homicidal villain in Red Eye. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s remarkable: Murphy uses a ridiculously high-pitched voice that quickly gets grating, and his giggling, flirty take on womanly mannerisms goes beyond queenliness into caricature. Worse, as Pluto goes on—with IRA-related confrontations and bombings, one of which Kitten witnesses in slo-mo, one of which he’s suspected of—it becomes increasingly clear that its hero is flat-out delusional, living inside the fairy tale he concocted in school and overwhelmingly oblivious to the realities of the world. “Serious, serious, serious,” Kitten chides anyone whose feet remain on Earth.

Vagabonding his way across the British Isles and surviving on the kindness of strangers, Kitten eventually realizes who his friends are and becomes the happy member of an alternative family. With “Sugar Baby Love” returning to accompany a zooming-out shot of the new clan, Breakfast on Pluto’s finale is supposed to be joyful. If there were anything behind all that sass and sparkle, you might be convinced.

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