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Men With Brooms

A review by Mary Kelch

For a movie billed as a romantic comedy, Men With Brooms explores remarkably dark and sober themes. The opening monologue – delivered by a dead man – welcomes us with a proclamation that death awaits us all and, lest we manage to forget that fact momentarily, stark reminders are scattered throughout the film. Perhaps the most startling instance occurs as the hero of the story, Chris Cutter (Paul Gross), offers a farewell to his ex-love-turned-astronaut, Julie Foley (Michelle Nolden), who is about to rocket into space. After she tells him where she'll be among the stars, he rejoins with a chilling allusion to the Challenger disaster.

Men With Brooms castHowever, in this ultimately optimistic story, the reality of death is given the power to will life, comically symbolized in a scene where manure is harvested and used to encourage growth of "magical mushrooms." Set in the fictional dying town of Long Bay, Ontario, Men With Brooms picks up on the stories of a group of characters who are all, in their own way, marching toward their deaths like a herd of suicidal beavers. Variously cursed with the inability to conceive a child, a loveless marriage, a retreat from the world through drugs or alcohol or by literally blasting off the planet, and the failure to do anything in life that equals the grace of a well-thrown curling stone, each of the principal characters is somehow gravely injured and in need of salvation.

The lot of savior falls to Chris Cutter, son of a local curling god, who represents both the town's fall from grace and its chance at redemption. Indeed, more than once, Cutter evokes the image of the crucified Christ as he appears to hang from his broom, and other biblical and religious references abound in imagery and speech. ("Good God in his high chair!" has to be my favorite.) Cutter is the classical hero who must achieve the treasure and save his kingdom. The treasure, in this case, being the Golden Broom trophy, which Cutter and his rink must pursue with the "will to one thing."

Men With Brooms works on a cultural as well as a universal level. The overtly Canadian setting speaks to the importance of cultural traditions and mythologies in revealing who we are and how we make our way in the world. At the same time, the hero of this Canadian story clearly represents the Everyman who must take responsibility for both his own fall from grace and his salvation. Cutter explains the allure of curling as a kind of poetry, a metaphor for life, when he calls the 42-pound hunk of granite "the repository of human possibility." This cultural symbol works its psychic magic on Cutter and his team as they come to realize that they are as likely and able to win as the next guy.

The cast is a pleasure to watch, making the most of their roles while allowing the character of Cutter to stand out as the focal point. The actors convey the humanity of their characters in such a natural manner that you feel you know them and, consequently, care about them. While it may have been interesting to delve a little deeper into some of the peripheral characters, doing so wouldn't necessarily have served the story. Paul Gross and John Krizanc have written an efficient screenplay, telling a simple story very simply and giving us just enough glue to fit the pieces together without clouding the picture. When silent expression can relate a thousand words, no words are spoken. This is particularly evident, and well-played, in the developing relationships between Cutter and Amy Foley (Molly Parker) and Cutter and his father (Leslie Nielsen), the mushroom cultivator.

The juxtaposition of drama and comedy is very real and poignant, not simply played for laughs, as it illustrates exactly how life will pull punches. One may feel solidly on his feet when suddenly the rug will be swept from underneath, landing him, very unceremoniously, on his backside. For example, there is a very emotionally tense scene at an AA meeting which is capped off with a clever bit of humor. If we can laugh at these situations on the screen, then perhaps we can learn to laugh when they happen to us in our own lives.

Men With BroomsIt may seem that everything falls into place too easily at the end of the film, but that is precisely the point of this classic story. If we are living genuinely with the universe and not, to continue the film's metaphor, "burning" our rocks to cheat the outcome, our rocks will land on – or at least near – the button. It was especially satisfying to see this happen without quite as much of the manipulative fanfare with which a typical Hollywood blockbuster will drown a film. In fact, just at the point where the movie appears to be sinking into hokey cheese, it is literally laughed off. Additionally, having spent a day on the set as a volunteer extra, I noticed the editing of certain dialogue and shots that might have caused a good deal of cynical eye-rolling had they made the final cut!

Men With Brooms is more than a romance, more than a comedy, and more than a movie about curlers or Canadians. It's an honest, real, and touching portrayal of life – and the quest for the perfectly thrown hunk of granite. Thematically (and sometimes structurally), Gross's film shows elements common to other Canadian filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan and Don McKellar, tempered with his unique voice. We are invited to accept our inevitable death and to laugh and live and love in the meantime. I found the film very reminiscent of "Brassed Off" (from the UK), which is also about a town and its people in decay and its bid for redemption.

I do have one major beef, however: why isn't "Land of the Silver Birch" included on the movie's soundtrack CD? I feel cheated!