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Only kidding about the roses

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Is there any filmmaker making movies today who is as consistently inconsistent as Neil Jordan? The man who proved that it's actually possible to make an abysmal flick despite the participation of Sean Penn, Robert DeNiro, and David Mamet (1989's We're No Angels) also helped usher in the commercial viability of independent cinema when Miramax got its mitts on 1992's seminal The Crying Game. Since then the Irish auteur has given us both a dazzling fiasco (1994's Interview with the Vampire) as well as an elegant tearjerker (1999's The End of the Affair), with stops along the way (i.e., 1996's underrated Michael Collins and 1997's overpraisedThe Butcher Boy) of varying success.

Breakfast on Pluto is Jordan's latest film. Adapted from a novel by Patrick McCabe --- also the author of the book on which The Butcher Boy was based --- Pluto relates the once-upon-a-time of a foster child who grows up to be a transvestite in the strife-torn Ireland of the '60s and '70s. Pluto, for better or for worse, is vintage Neil Jordan: a black comedy suffused with manipulatively leaden drama and obvious symbolism, its flaws rendered forgivable thanks to the passion with which Jordan spins a yarn as well as his dependably impeccable casting.

Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) plays Patrick Braden, an Irish handful at ease with the fact that he's not like other boys, even if the adults around him don't share his contentment. With his whispery voice, sky-blue peepers, and lush pout, the androgynous Patrick makes no attempt to hide his feminine proclivities, whether he's fast-talking his way into home ec class or bedazzling his school uniform. Patrick is, however, increasingly consumed by thoughts of his birth mother, a bubble-curled blonde who reportedly moved to London, and he snatches the first available opportunity to light out as well.

Yup, Pluto is your basic road movie in which someone looks for something but finds so much more, meeting a colorful array of characters who supply the journey with its necessary momentum. Patrick first gets involved with a glam rocker (composer Gavin Friday) who dabbles in arms stockpiling, a liaison that gives Patrick his first dose of both heartbreak and reality as the Troubles begin to cloud the naïve Patrick's rose-hued glasses. The Emerald Isle's religious discord plays a supporting role here and seems to serve as more of a plot device in order to weed out characters that have elicited our sympathy and trigger Patrick's subsequent actions. It's really all about Patrick and his quest to find his mom.

So Patrick, now cross-dressing and introducing himself as Kitten with greater frequency, heads for London, where he meets a crabby Womble (Harry Potter's Brendan Gleeson), a suave sadist (Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry), and a kindly magician (frequent Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea). But anyone who's seen a movie (or had a pulse, for that matter) knows you can't escape your past, and Kitten's hard-won deliverance arrives in a most unusual way.

The cast of Pluto alone is almost enough to recommend it: I haven't even mentioned Liam Neeson's vital turn as a priest and one of the UK's best utility players, Ian Hart, as a deceptively gruff cop. You know Hart; he pops up in almost every other British film (he's also a Jordan regular) and kick-started his career portraying John Lennon in Backbeat. His partner is played by Steven Waddington, probably best known for being mercifully plugged by Daniel Day-Lewis in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (one of my all-time faves).

As Kitten, the lithe and delicate Murphy makes for a stunning woman (far more attractive than the Snoopy-shaped Gael Garcia Bernal in Almodovar'sBad Education). Kitten's breathy manner of speaking and innocent eyes scream absolute detachment, and even when Kitten is being interrogated as a terrorism suspect, you suspect he doesn't understand the import of it, then wonder if maybe that aloof simplicity isn't such a bad idea considering all he's been through. It certainly lends itself to one of the film's more whimsical interludes in which Kitten fantasizes about being a vinyl-clad operative armed only with Chanel No. 5.

But that's also one of the problems with Pluto: the silliness and seriousness don't always jibe, and Jordan isn't entirely successful in sustaining either the comedy or the drama. All moviegoing calls for a suspension of disbelief on some level, and Pluto's resonance depends on the viewer's ability and willingness to let go and accompany Patrick/Kitten on his fairy-tale odyssey. Once the lights dim, however, you're halfway there.

Breakfast on Pluto (R), directed by Neil Jordan, is playing at the Little Theatres.

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