With the level of acting caliber and folksy period aesthetic director Thaddeus O’Sullivan can proudly boast in The Miracle Club, it’s valid to expect an empathic champion of cinematic prestige rooted in the dynamics of a stage play. Crossing over that DNA, however, simply doesn’t work this time, as a cliched and unengaging story leads to a worst-case scenario. One involving unexpected animosity amongst its cast, all of whom attempt to outpace each other. Somehow, that might be more exciting than what all occurs on screen.
O’Sullivan (Ordinary Decent Criminal), working from a script penned by Josh Maurer (The Last Tycoon), Tim Prager (Silent Witness) and Jimmy Smallhorne, is not shy of historical anecdotes and finite research. It all still feels fictitiously flat in the vein of a quiet road trip where all manners of interpersonal connection lose any spark before a match has any chance to step in. It’s a poignant fragment of time, all the same – 1967 Dublin. Right by the coastline, residents of the community of Ballygar converge to pay tribute to a resident recently deceased. With guilt and reflection in their hearts, a wayward trio proceeds forward for the greater good, and to win themselves tickets to a getaway vacation in Lourdes, France, the prize in a church talent show. Among them, Lily (Maggie Smith), mourning for varied reasons; Eileen (Kathy Bates), overworked and humbled by a health scare; and despairing Dolly (Agnes O’Casey), looking for a cure to her son Daniel’s (Eric D. Smith) muteness.
It is very straightforward, diving headfirst into a middling self-discovery trial. The only wrench to fling its way into affairs doesn’t do a lot to complicate the passage, only minimally making it all thematically interesting. Visiting from Boston is Chrissie (Laura Linney), in town for her mother’s funeral, and once a major presence in Lily and Eileen’s lives by proxy. The pair scoff at the intrusion, declaring it desertion to an extent, with apprehension mellowing as they all reconnect on the sidewinding journey.
Whatever core theme O’Sullivan is tasked to prioritize doesn’t exactly make itself known, working amid a litany of underdeveloped ideas in an unfairly limited runtime. All occur like separate vignettes ranging from witty to dreary, unable to link together outside of basic exposition. The exercise of Irish emotional happenstance bears no subtlety or fluency, appearing as forced as the lore around Lourdes, illustrated on a figuratively rough canvas as a place of magic and goodwill. Both merely stand as a loose fabrication, both the subject of scrutiny, but never given more than an anecdote or two to address their impact. There’s a single nugget alone worth shoehorning in on the downside of false worship. O’Sullivan overlooks that idea, aware it might not be his kind of film, one leaning in on its religious symbolism, gussied up with a period-accurate flair by way of John Conroy’s (The Happy Prince) sharp-eyed camera work.
With this group of characters, however, a firmer approach to the mystery of their destination would’ve served them well. Perhaps running on a track in parallel to the real meat in O’Sullivan’s blueprint – the sharp tear of skepticism on Chrissie’s face. Her flurry of emotions is the glue hooking Lily, Eileen, and Dolly together, nudging (not sliding) into the empty fourth seat. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise, therefore, how the newfound visitor’s phase of familial closure and practical thinking serves as the strongest story idea. And Linney’s capable demeanor leaves a calming echo effect amid queries of optimistic anxiety that never leap off the page. With how little detail there is in play they can only meander, stumbling on motivation until the end.
Lily faces a crossroads with her grief, despite her gruff husband’s stubbornness to move past. Something Smith addresses loudly with insurmountable tension, even if such a weak script is immediately beneath her evergreen tact. Eileen’s learning on the fly to be one with herself, a late bloomer spurred on by the need to prioritize her health. And even when softly shuffling about the matter, Bates strives for an acutely humble spin. Dolly rides high on an opportunity to create a lasting self-independence, hoping to instill the same for her kid – and O’Casey delicately plays that card with astute prose. They’re all making the most of conventional character activity, the very thing weighing them down. Even the side effects of their significant others struggling to cope with temporary absences, primarily done for laughs, fail to bring wind to any sails. A waste of right-at-average writing, only occasionally working with flourishes of idyllic wit and benediction.
O’Sullivan can stick a decent landing, despite only the faintest glimpse of a clever idea awaiting a dramatic overhaul. Anyone going into The Miracle Club expecting another poetic Irish diatribe ala Banshees of Inisherin will leave starkly robbed of 90 economically spent minutes. A prompt effort of time and spirit used to fulfill the film’s needs, but never to compliment them. Sure, it touches on religious misappropriation and the power of generational friendships, why one must be coveted and the other slapped about to invoke lost clarity. And why forgiving the past can prevent further missed chances, particularly with the strength of a golden ensemble, Smith and Linney especially. It’s all going about it the wrong way – so wrongly that no significant life event these characters tangle with bears any meaning or weight on the overall plot. Even when guilt runs at its highest threshold, I could barely feel for this close-knit group of friends, hopeful their issues would be resolved, though unable to walk in step with them. Might be worth a Sunday matinee with good friends who might sense that camaraderie better than I ever could. (C-; 2.5/5)
The Miracle Club opens in semi-wide release across area theaters July 14; rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some language; 90 minutes.