The title of “Whole Lotta Sole” is the kind of gratingly obnoxious flourish that makes you hate the movie immediately. First of all it sits in your mouth like a blob of half-chewed gummy bears; secondly, it sounds like a direct-to-video independent movie produced in the mid-’90s that the Weinsteins picked up on a whim; and thirdly its implied double meaning – it’s the name of a fish market in the film but its phonetic weight means something too (“whole lot of soul”) – is meant to deepen the movie but instead leaves you even more irritated. The movie is pretty much exactly like that – it tries to sugarcoat the British gangster movie (and we’re using the “British” term pretty broadly; it’s set in Belfast) and leaves you totally annoyed and unsatisfied.
“Whole Lotta Sole” is the kind of movie that revels in hanging out with eccentric (“quirky”) characters in this Irish town. We’re first introduced to a couple of young dudes, one of whom, Jimbo (Martin McCann), is heavily indebted to a fearsome local gangster named Mad Dog Flynn (the gravel-voiced perpetual villain David O’Hara). Mad Dog tells Jimbo that unless he gets paid back in a few days, he’s going to take Jimbo’s infant child (Mad Dog is unable to have kids). Jimbo is clearly flustered and decides to rob the local fish market (which shares the title of the movie) but gets even more flummoxed when he realizes that the fish market is a front for Mad Dog’s criminal activity.
Running low on options (and with his small child in tow), Jimbo goes to an antiques shop run by Joe Maguire (Brendan Fraser, looking like he and Nic Cage share the same wig man), who may or may not be Jimbo’s biological father (don’t ask). Pretty soon a half-assed hostage situation has erupted, with Jimbo holding Joe, his girlfiend Sophie (Yaya DaCosta), and two young gypsy children who have hidden in a secondhand couch (don’t ask) at gunpoint. A local cop named Weller (Colm Meaney) tries to take control of the situation, but is facing jurisdictional interference and Mad Dog himself, fearful of the contents of a bag that Jimbo stole from the fish market getting out, tries to end the standoff (with a bang).
There’s a whole lot of local “color” in the movie, with a number of the characters referencing the conflict in Northern Ireland and a supporting cast that seems positively sprawling for a movie this tiny. And it is nice to have a real sense of both place and community, when so many comedies are bland and anonymously indistinguishable. DaCosta was a genius casting choice too, not only is she a great actress and totally beautiful, but her addition to the cast suggests the new Ireland, one vibrantly full (and accepting) of immigrants.
“Whole Lotta Sole” falters, however, when the sheer number of subplots turn from additional texture to clunky white noise (seemingly everyone is involved in some kind of conflict, misunderstanding, or crazy scenario), and when its good-natured sensibility takes all the air out of any of the more crime-oriented elements of the story. It was like if someone got a hold of an old Guy Ritchie script (complete with a MacGuffin that everyone is after) and decided, instead of a hard-R crime movie punctuated by wacky characters, it would be a wacky comedy that tried to inject some of those harsher crime elements into its warm and fuzzy core. Sort of like if “The Guard” was totally defanged.
The result is a thunderously unfunny mess, anchored by a pair of performances that are screechy (McMann) and completely colorless (Fraser), with the conflict escalating without anything even remotely resembling tension. It’s like someone yelling “this is intense!” but you’re never actually feeling it. What makes “Whole Lotta Sole” even more baffling is that it was co-written and directed by Terry George, a man well versed in the drama of real life (he’s directed things like “Hotel Rwanda” and “Reservation Road“) and very recent Oscar winner (earlier this year he picked up a little naked gold man for a short film called “The Shore“), who seems to be going for something very different here and not quite making it. The movie is toothless and cute enough that it will easily win over art house audiences who don’t like to be challenged or hassled. But everyone else will find “Whole Lotta Sole” banal and aggravating. [D]