Burns must have cast Elijah Wood because of Lord of the Rings, figured his presence would boost Ash Wednesday‘s salability. At some point during filming, as Burns watched Wood’s useless, laughable, whiny performance… he must have regretted it. It’s not like the film’s only problem is Wood–far from it–but he’s just so terrible, so incompetent, the whole proposition becomes ludicrous when he appears.
And the appearance of his character is actually one of the film’s other primary problems. The first twenty-five minutes–save a useless prologue, probably only in there to get Wood on screen at the outset in order to satisfy that rabid Elijah Wood fan-base–are a solid, boring day in the life. Burns isn’t going for metaphor with the title, the film takes place on February 16, 1983. He’s playing a bar owner who goes about his morning, trying to get to church and stuck hearing about his brother (Wood)–supposedly deceased–back from the grave. He’s got good mobsters, bad mobsters and a priest pestering him. It’s a solid twenty-five minutes, because there’s no indication Wood’s still alive, and it’s just day-in-the-life and Burns does it well. I wonder if he distracted himself from Wood’s performance with the exquisite direction. He futzes with the focus for effect at times and it doesn’t work, but Ash Wednesday has some wonderful composition. It’s so good, one can forgive Burns his sepia filter, which he must have been using to give it the 1983 look. It doesn’t really work, but, again, it’s forgivable.
The problems with the script are a different matter. Burns’s protagonist is barely a character. The more people talk about him–the main source of information about the stoic, somber individual–the more difficult it becomes to reconcile Burns’s portrayal with the imagined personality. One of Burns’s greatest strengths as a writer-director-actor is his ability to write himself a good character. He’s not Marlon Brando–in most of his films, the flashier performances go to other actors–but here, he misfires. Presumably, the Wood role was supposed to be flashier, but instead it’s like a mob comedy–like that movie with Charles Grodin and Martin Short where Short plays a little kid–Wood is playing a tough guy.
There’s also an inherent problem with the genre. The Irish crime genre has almost no successes–all I can think of, recently, is The Departed. Almost every other notable one–I’m thinking primarily of State of Grace–is a disaster. Burns certainly doesn’t bring anything new to it, but there’s a potential to Ash Wednesday he doesn’t seem aware of.
If the film had been a day-in-the-life where Wood doesn’t show up until the last act (or not at all)–and Burns had written himself a better role–it would have been something interesting… a character drama set in a crime-friendly environment. Would have been solid.
It’s just a shame such good direction–and such a good cast (Oliver Platt, James Handy, Peter Gerety)–got wasted on such a poor effort. David Shire’s music too. It’s a simple, repetitive piano score. Boring, like the entire movie should have been.
Still, without Wood, it would have at least been passable… though Rosario Dawson doesn’t have an ounce of chemistry with anyone in the film.