Imagine falling for someone and getting to know them so intimately that every curve of their smile and quirk of their speech feels familiar. And then imagine that one day they bring home a cousin of theirs that you’ve never met and who turns out to be simultaneously abrasive and smarmily ingratiating and also just so, so odd. This relative is always waiting right outside your bedroom door when you open it in the morning, as though they’ve been standing there for hours. They don’t appear to eat or drink anything, or at least not anything within the known boundaries of human food. They’re possibly a serial killer and/or an alien, but, the thing is, they also bear such a strong resemblance to the person you love that, even after this visit from hell is over, you find yourself looking askance at those cherished features, wondering if there’s something you missed, even though technically nothing has changed at all.
That is what it’s like to watch Wild Mountain Thyme, the new film from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright John Patrick Shanley. It surely was not intended to be a kamikaze effort to convince the world it was wrong to love Moonstruck, the 1987 Cher and Nicolas Cage–led swooner that Shanley wrote and Norman Jewison directed. But it manages to be utterly batshit while also having enough in common with Moonstruck — which remains, to be clear, a practically perfect movie — to give the most devoted fan a moment of doubt. Wild Mountain Thyme is an adaptation of Shanley’s play Outside Mullingar, which had a Broadway run in 2014 that nabbed it a Tony nomination and an Irish Times review deeming it “mystifyingly awful.” It is, like Moonstruck, a kind of ethnic romantic comedy with one foot in the mundane and one foot in the realm of fairy tale. It even includes a scene of its luminous female lead sitting in the audience of a show and being deeply moved by what’s onstage — though it’s the ballet this time, rather than the opera. But Wild Mountain Thyme is not just charmless. It is genuinely confounding, a movie constantly working against itself to make its characters and their dilemma comprehensible.
Wild Mountain Thyme stars Emily Blunt as Rosemary Muldoon, and Jamie Dornan as Anthony Reilly, who grew up on neighboring farms in an area of Ireland that’s close enough to the coast to enable opening montages of sea cliffs giving way to green valleys and trickling brooks. They are meant to be reluctant inheritors of a dying way of life, though the film’s depiction of their region is so lushly romantic as to make it seem more likely they’d be constantly besieged by tourists hoping to Airbnb one of their spare rooms. The brusque Rosemary set her cap at Anthony when they were children and has stubbornly refused to change her mind, while Anthony — well, it’s not entirely clear what Anthony’s deal is. He hates the farm but also feels inexorably tied to it. He doesn’t appear to register that Rosemary is waiting on him, or maybe he’s just strategically ignoring her interest. His father, Tony (Christopher Walken, providing what’s easily the funniest entry in the film’s parade of accents), entertains the idea of selling the farm to his American nephew, Adam Kelly (Jon Hamm), instead of leaving it to his son. In other contexts, this might seem arbitrary and cruel, but this one has you longing for something to fuck Anthony up, so why not?
In the theatrical version of this story, Rosemary and Anthony are virgins who are approaching middle age having failed, for different reasons, to launch. In casting a picturesque Blunt and the man who played Christian Grey as its leads, Wild Mountain Thyme does a lot to undermine any dynamic of eccentrics trying to get their act together. If the gimmick of the movie is that it’s a rom-com without obvious obstacles, the excruciating spectacle of a pair of wildly beautiful people enacting a prolonged lack of interest in one another is not dissimilar to that of endangered pandas refusing to mate even after years of being paired at a zoo. “Let them go extinct!” you might find yourself shrieking at the screen. “Also, combine the damn farms and sell them to someone who’ll build a bed-and-breakfast for Americans whose main connection to their ancestry involves puking up green beer on St. Patrick’s Day! It’s what these people deserve!” Time passes in surreal fits and starts. The Ireland of the film feels like it’s lodged somewhere in the 1950s, then one of the characters talks about seeing The Lion King on Broadway while on a trip to New York. During a pivotal late scene, the swaggering Adam takes a transatlantic flight that feels like it takes at least a week.
One of the great pleasures of Moonstruck comes from the movie’s tongue-in-cheek relationship with the culture of its Italian American characters — their reliance on, or sense of distance from, stereotypes of hot-blooded passion that they nevertheless find themselves eventually surrendering to. But there’s none of that winking or any trace of irony in Wild Mountain Thyme. Its Ireland is a pure fantasy, and that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the movie had any interest in engaging with the space the country occupies in the imagination of rootless-feeling children of its diaspora. Instead, the setting just serves as an excuse for characters to deliver utter nonsense lines, like this one from Rosemary: “It’s good that you’re tall. Men are beasts. They need that height to balance the truth and the goodness of women.” Or the late reveal from Anthony on why he hasn’t wanted to marry, an attempt at subverting expectations that instead is just an absolute howler of a moment. In the parlance of the film, this might all be categorized as blarney. But it’d be more accurate to call it bullshit.
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