Just how is one supposed to react, in 2013, to a non-ironic use of the Proclaimers' “(I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles” in a musical montage?
It might inspire you to check your ticket stub to make sure you aren't watching something on the order of “Parental Guidance.” But no, this is “The Angels' Share,” a Cannes jury prize winner (somehow) and the latest from Ken Loach, a director who, last we checked, still had his act together. The prolific 76-year-old British creator of character-rich, social dramas steeped in natural realism (usually) has whiffed it and whiffed it hard with this one. It's not that it's just “lesser Loach.” It is, in my opinion at least, humiliating.
“The Angels' Share” begins decent enough introducing a lineup of Glasgow-based screw-ups receiving community service sentences. Among them is Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a thug whose public interest attorney swears is going to clean up his act now that his girlfriend is pregnant, Albert (Gary Maitland) a bald, bespectacled nincompoop who exists mainly to disprove Darwin's theory of natural selection and Mo (Jasmin Riggins) an unrepentant kleptomaniac. Under the watchful eye of Harry (John Henshaw) they and others paint walls in government buildings and clean up cemeteries.
Harry, while ostensibly “the Man” in this scenario, is more of a camp counselor. He lives in a modest home and his passion is tasting (but not getting wrecked on) fine whiskies. He takes Robbie under his wing and next thing you know Robbie is to sniffing single malts what Mozart is to writing piano concertos. Harry sees in Robbie the son he never had (as Robbie himself has just had a son but his girlfriend's bruiser family threaten to separate them). With a shared fondness for discussing whisky, they find a hobby that takes their minds off their trouble.
And there is trouble for Robbie. In addition to getting jumped by his girlfriend's brothers, he agrees to attend a counseling session for a boy he beat the hell out of years ago. Robbie seems conciliatory, but the matter is quickly dropped and the film's focus turns back to whisky and, eventually, a wacky get rich quick scheme.
Not since “Silver Linings Playbook” has there been such a tone-deaf shift in a film's level of verisimilitude. Like De Niro making side bets, Robbie and his crew are soon stealing liters of the world's priciest whisky and smuggling them back to the city. Most baffling, however, are lengthy, flatly-shot scenes of watching our band observe the machinations of the high end whiskey market. They attend multiple tastings and even take a distillery tour that could double as a promotional video for the brand.
Unlike, say, the driving school scenes in Mike Leigh's “Happy Go Lucky” (to bring up a director Loach is frequently compared to), these mundane scenes don't draw out wonderful moments of human nature. They just lay there on the screen, daring you to ask “why the heck are we seeing this?”
Since the characters speak in hearty, obscenity-fueled dialects there is a sort of anthropological fun that can be had with “The Angels' Share.” However there are far better ways to get a wee taste of the underclass of the British Isles than this odd duck of a picture. Despite its hopes, it is pure bottom shelf material.