IT'S A WOEFUL LIFE
A long-delayed sequel to the classic James Stewart Christmas movie 'It's a Wonderful Life', finds a new hero, Brian Cowen, getting a taste of what the world would have been like if he had never been born, writea Frank McNally.
THE TAOISEACH'S LIVING ROOM. CHRISTMAS.
On a TV in the corner we see the closing scene from It's a Wonderful Life, the classic 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. Brian Cowen watches it in silence, sipping eggnog and wiping away tears. The TV shows Stewart - as George Bailey - hugging his wife and infant daughter. Before them is a table piled high with money donated by the countless friends George has helped during his lifetime, who have gathered now in his hour of need after the family firm's much-loved but feckless Uncle Billy mislaid a large cash deposit and brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. Everyone is wreathed in smiles and singing Auld Lang Syne. As the song continues, something causes the Christmas tree beside George to shake. Among the decorations, a small bell tinkles.
INFANT DAUGHTER:Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
GEORGE (realisation dawning on his face):That's right! That's right! (He looks heavenwards and winks.) Attaboy, Clarence!
The words "The End" appear on screen. The film credits roll. Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief one last time, the Taoiseach falls asleep.
We see snow falling on cosy suburban homesteads. From the houses, unidentified voices are heard, apparently in prayer.
FIRST VOICE:Dear God, help my friend Biffo Cowen this night.
SECOND VOICE:I owe everything to Biffo: please Lord, give him a break.
THIRD VOICE:He never thinks of himself - that's why he's in trouble. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help him.
(The camera pans upwards to the night sky, where two constellations are seen twinkling. Deeper voices are heard.)
JOSEPH:Looks like we'll have to send somebody down. A lot of people are requesting help for a man named Biffo.
GOD:Oh yes, him. Tonight's his crisis moment, isn't it? All right, whose turn is it?
JOSEPH:It's Clarence again. He still hasn't got his wings.
GOD:Send for him now.
(A smaller star shoots into view.)
GOD:A man down on Earth needs our help, Clarence.
CLARENCE:Oh dear. Is he sick?
GOD:Worse than that, he's discouraged. At exactly 10.45pm Earth time, he will seriously consider calling a snap general election for mid-January.
CLARENCE:But, that would be . . . suicide.
GOD:Exactly. We need to stop him. If you succeed in this mission, you'll get your wings.
As research for his task, Clarence reviews highlights of Cowen's early life. We see the hero as a boy, plunging into an icy pond to save his nine-year-old brother; as an 18-year-old on a J1 visa in the US, intervening to prevent his employer - an elderly drugstore owner - from inadvertently poisoning a customer; and as a young adult, selflessly withdrawing from the 1982 Offaly senior football panel and persuading the manager that his place should go instead to the veteran Seamus Darby.
Now we see him as a full-grown man. The highlights reel continues with his brilliant warm-up routines before the leader's speech at successive Fianna Fáil ardfheiseanna; his hilarious impressions of Tony Blair and other world leaders; his legendary sessions on the piano. Finally we move to May 2008 and a romantic scene as he kneels before a winsome Mary Coughlan and asks the question: "Will you be my Tánaiste, Mary?"
INSIDE A STATE CAR.
With the cheers of their friends dying away, Biffo and Mary are starting out on their political honeymoon. They are clearly in high spirits.
DRIVER:Where are you two going, anyway?
BIFFO:Well, we were thinking: first Lisbon, then the world! With this massive exchequer surplus of ours we can do anything. (He flashes a large wad of cash.)
DRIVER (noticing a crowd gathered on the street, and slowing the car down): Don't look now, Taoiseach, but there's something funny going on over there at the bank. I've never really seen one before, but that has all the hallmarks of a run. (He stops the car.)
MARY (as the Taoiseach gets out): Don't do it, Brian! It's our honeymoon.
BIFFO:I'll only be a minute.
THE INTERIOR OF THE FAMILY FIRM: BIFFO BUILDING LOAN.
Depositers have gathered there, in a panic and looking for their money. The Taoiseach tries to calm them and explains that the cash is not immediately available because it is invested in other people's homes. But when they persist, he and Mary cancel their honeymoon and use their savings to give the customers what they need. When the panic subsides, staff count down the minutes to normal closing, when they will know that the firm has survived the run. They watch the clock ticking towards 6pm. Then they shut the doors and celebrate.
BIFFO:We made it! We're still in business!
MARY:I'll get the champagne.
Disaster has struck. The family's much-loved but scatter-brained Uncle Bertie has mislaid the entire proceeds of the boom years. They search everywhere, but the money has simply disappeared. Biffo is at first gentle with his uncle, pleading with him to try and remember where he last saw the cash. But realising the enormity of the situation, he finally loses his temper.
BIFFO (grabbing Uncle Bertie by the shoulders): Where's that money, you silly old fool? Where's the money? Do you realise what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and ruin. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me!
(Uncle Bertie collapses in tears. Biffo storms out.)
The Taoiseach wanders the streets alone in the snow. at his wit's end. He goes into a bar. After several stiff brandies, trembling, he looks to the heavens.
BIFFO (in a quivering voice): I'm not a praying man, Lord. But if you're up there, show me the way. I just don't know what to do any more.
(An elderly man appears alongside him)
BIFFO:Who are you?
MAN:I'm your guardian angel.
BIFFO:Yeah, and I'm a ballerina.
MAN:No, seriously. Clarence Oddbody, angel second class, at your service. (He offers his hand.)
BIFFO (shaking hands, dubiously): If you're an angel, where are your wings?
CLARENCE:I haven't got them yet, I'm afraid. I'm hoping you can help me.
BIFFO (gloomily staring into his drink): Then you came to the wrong place, buddy. It's all cutbacks here too.
In a throwaway comment, the depressed Taoiseach has told Clarence he wishes he had never been born. This gives the angel an idea. After clearing it with heaven, he decides to show Biffo what the world would look like without him. It is a strange place; recognisable, yet somehow colder and more hostile.First they visit the GAA museum and see a montage of Kerry lifting the Sam Maguire in 1982 to complete the historic five-in-a-row.
BIFFO:But we won that year!
CLARENCE:No, you didn't. You'd never been born - remember? Without your encouragement, Seamus Darby quietly retired in June. He wasn't around to score the winning goal in September. Kerry won by two points.
(Further on, they visit the Department of Health and a series of AE departments. The Taoiseach addresses old friends including Mary Harney by name, but nobody recognises him. Everybody seems to be harassed and in a bad mood.)
CLARENCE:You see, because you were never born, and therefore never became minister for health, the hospital system is a complete mess.
BIFFO:Well, in fairness, it was a mess when I was minister as well.
CLARENCE:Er, okay. So maybe that's not a good example.
(Finally they come to the Dáil. Again, nobody recognises Cowen, who is forced to get a temporary pass for the visitors' gallery. From there, he sees Enda Kenny on his feet, reading out a list of names and job descriptions.)
BIFFO:What's going on?
CLARENCE:Enda Kenny is announcing a Cabinet reshuffle.
BIFFO:But he can't be. We won the election. I swung it for us single-handedly when I was sent out mid-campaign to beat up Richard Bruton.
CLARENCE:No you didn't. You didn't exist. Fine Gael won by a landslide - 92 seats.
ENDA KENNY:. . . And as the new minister for finance, I nominate Leo Varadkar . . .
BIFFO (screaming): Nooooo!!! I've changed my mind, Clarence. I want to live!
(Clarence has disappeared. Cowen suddenly realises that the world has returned to normal, that he exists again and is still Taoiseach. Feeling happy for the first time in months, he sets out for home, running through the snow-covered streets, shouting "Merry Christmas!" to everyone he passes.)
BUDGET DAY 2009.
The Taoiseach has presided over the most dramatic economic recovery in world history. The tables of the Department of Finance are piled high with cash, donated by all the people whose lives have been touched by Brian Cowen's past generosity. Offaly GAA has donated thousands. Ian Paisley has sent €50. Even the World Bank has contributed. In the Dáil, the press gallery is packed with foreign journalists here to witness the miracle. The distinguished visitors' gallery is full of foreign ambassadors taking notes. The Ceann Comhairle has suspended standing orders to allow the Opposition serenade the Government in a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne. Cowen hugs his Tánaiste and Minister for Finance as he surveys the happy scene. The diminutive Willie O'Dea scampers past and the Taoiseach picks him up by the collar and tousles his hair. In the background, a muffled bell is heard, summoning TDs for the first vote on the budget.
WILLIE (in a cute, childlike voice): Listen to that, Biffo. My old teacher used to say that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
BIFFO:That's right! That's right! (He looks to the sky and winks.) Attaboy, Clarence.
THE TAOISEACH'S LIVING ROOM. DAWN.
The television is showing breakfast news. A bell rings - this time the telephone. Roused from sleep, Cowen reaches for the receiver.
VOICE ON PHONE:Morning, Taoiseach. Brian Lenihan here. Sorry if I woke you, but I'm afraid there's more bad news.
BIFFO (sighing): What is it now?
(He listens, nodding gravely, his face turning pale. Finally, he cuts Lenihan short.)
BIFFO:Okay, okay. I'll see you at the emergency Cabinet meeting in an hour.
(He puts down the phone and looks heavenwards, ruefully.) Thanks a lot, Clarence.