A Stale Comedy that’s Beyond Salvation – IndieWire

On paper, Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s “The Miracle Club” seems like it should be a backboard-shattering slam-dunk for the sort of people whose favorite movies all share the words “and Maggie Smith” in their opening credits, but this trite Irish trifle about a girls trip to Lourdes is so chalky and underbaked that its all-star cast (Laura Linney! Kathy Bates! Stephen Rea!) is left no choice but to chew on the scenery. That’s a glaring problem in a film whose marquee location is so crudely green-screened behind the actors that the Grotto of the Apparitions feels like a leftover backdrop from “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

Occasionally sweet despite its general flavorlessness, “The Miracle Club” may have its heart in the right place, but it beats for nothing in a 1967-set period piece that grows faint at the sight of its own blood, let alone in a film that repeatedly dilutes the most dramatic undercurrents of its story with a comedy subplot that would have been stale in 1967. With their wives abroad, the husbands are forced to care for their children and households for the first time in their lives, and if you think these men know how to change a diaper… you might want to think again!

What’s most remarkable about that subplot isn’t the “jokes” (a man buying groceries!?), but rather how clumsily it’s tacked onto a story that would seem ready-made to accommodate such comic relief — a story that offers some all too gentle pushback against the self-denying burdens that patriarchies force women to shoulder alone. Each of the heroines in “The Miracle Club” has their own cross to bear, and each of them has been carrying it on their own. 

Prickly enough but even sharper than she lets on, Lily Fox (Smith) is still haunted by the loss of a child that her husband feels best forgotten. Her friend Eileen Dunne (Bates) has too many kids, but appears even more embittered for that, in part because her husband (Rea) is so useless, and in part because she’s recently been rewarded for her hard work with an undiagnosed lump in her right breast. Dolly (played by spirited newcomer Agnes O’Casey) is only in her twenties, but she finds common ground through her suffering: Not only does she have an emotionally abusive partner, but Dolly also blames herself for the fact that the six-year-old moppet they share still refuses to speak. 

“The Miracle Club” asks us to believe that these three women bonded through the singing group they formed to win their church talent show, just as it asks us to believe that everyone in the congregation would skip the funeral of the woman who organized it in order to participate in the event (the deceased’s thoroughly Americanized daughter Chrissie, played by Linney, is the only one who shows up). It asks us to believe that the little kid who actually wins the competition would forfeit the top prize — a free trip to Lourdes — to the trio of second-place moms because they’re all in obvious need of spiritual healing.

Most egregiously of all, it asks us to believe that Chrissie would choose to tag along at the last second (dramatically standing in front of the bus as it drives off), despite the fact that she and her dead mother’s friends all seem to hate each other for reasons that won’t be fully explained until the climactic scene that poignantly hints at the sensitive drama this could’ve been. By the time “The Miracle Club” gets to Lourdes at the end of the first act, simply accepting its premise requires a greater leap of faith than hoping a magic bath might have the power to cure cancer. 

It’s all the more unfortunate that “The Miracle Club” should feel so divorced from reality because co-writer Jimmy Smallhorne brings shades of lived-in sincerity to his original idea, while production designer John Hand and costume designer Judith Williams endow the hardknocks community of Ballygar with a tactile sense of place. Chrissie’s yellow peacoat seems ripped out of a Doris Day musical, and — when splashed against the gray terrace houses of working-class Dublin — says more about the ex-pat estrangement from Ireland than any of the characters ever do.

Elsewhere, Dolly and Eileen’s domestic lives buzz with a strain of kitchen-sink vitality that’s missing from the rest of the movie, and it’s hard to overstate how unfortunately counterintuitive it is that the women of “The Miracle Club” are most believable as human beings when they’re being oppressed by their husbands at home.  

Once the “action” shifts to “France,” it’s all about delaying the inevitable come-to-Jesus moment that makes this story worth telling — a moment that pointedly takes place in a simple hotel room, and not at the ultra-commodified religious site where the Virgin Mary was said to appear some 100 years earlier. Everything until then is basically just glorified vamping, as “The Miracle Club” refuses to make any meaningful choices about its characters’ respective beliefs. 

Affecting as it is when the women finally open up to each other and find new strength in their collective suffering, those late-game revelations — and the still-urgent politics that force them to remain private for so long — are denied their full dramatic power because the rest of the film rests on a thin foundation of shtick. While it’s touching and true when the women’s priest chaperone says that “you don’t come to Lourdes for a miracle, you come for the strength to go on when there is no miracle,” that line can’t help but ring as hollow as a Hallmark card towards the end of a movie that has told us nothing about what its characters actually believe. 

Sure, it’s amusing enough to watch a gifted comic actress like Bates frantically splash around in the holy baths, her character more agitated by the waters of Lourdes than the Unsinkable Molly Brown was by the icy darkness of the Atlantic, but the extent of Eileen’s bitterness remains unexplored in a threadbare 84-minute comedy that has to save time for the scene where Dolly’s husband replaces their baby’s diaper with a blanket. At least Dolly’s young son provides the plot’s most acutely emotional angle, if only because we get to see it play out before our eyes. 

Most of the older men in “The Miracle Club” are so oafish that I kept waiting for the priest to go full Mr. Bean, and it’s a small mercy that he remains decent (and relatively complex because of that) despite being a living symbol of the institution that has made the rest of the film’s characters feel like ruined women. But it’s only by opening up to each other that Lily and her friends are able to wrest a measure of overdue absolution for themselves, because the real miracle was always going to be the friends they made along the way. Perhaps they can still be saved in every way that a person can be saved — there’s no such hope for the movie around them.

Grade: C

Sony Pictures Classics will release “The Miracle Club” in theaters on Friday, July 14.

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