Anjelica Huston meant only to direct this working-class fairy tale, but took on the titular role when the original lead dropped out. Adapted from stand-up comic Brendan O'Carrol's first novel, The Mammy
, the story of Agnes Browne takes place in 1960s Dublin, where the newly widowed Browne bravely deals with too little money and too many (seven) kids. She's supported through her troubles by her best friend (Marion O'Dwyer); a goofy-faced, adoring French baker (Arno Chevrier); the aforementioned brood--and her dream of one day meeting Tom Jones (materializing conveniently to belt out "She's a Lady"). Ray Winstone (superb in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth
) plays local loan shark as nasty ogre, the one rotten spot in a neighborhood so whimsically benign it makes Capra's Bedford Falls look downright unfriendly.
Having grown up in Galway, Huston should be no stranger to Gaelic life. And her first film, Bastard Out of Carolina, showed a willingness to plumb the darkest recesses of the human heart. But Agnes Browne, all unearned sweetness and light, is feel-good soap opera tricked up as an Irishwoman's "feminist" bid for independence. Too often, Huston generates smiles out of quaint-Irish caricature: giggling over "organisms"--orgasms!--Agnes and her benighted pal later wonder whether breast cancer comes from having had two in a lifetime. After a surfeit of "Jaysuses" and pub sing-alongs, you yearn for the sharp comedy of Roddy Doyle's reality-based Dublin stories, such as The Snapper or The Commitments. If you fell for the ethnic hilarity of Waking Ned Devine, you'll love Agnes Browne's Hollywood hokum about an Ireland that never was. --Kathleen Murphy