Stephen Burke was in Galway to witness firsthand Rose Dooley’s supernatural abilities that allow her to communicate with spirits.
Over the course of six days, 95 films were screened at the Galway Film Fleadh from a total of 36 different countries yet Irish comedy-horror Extra Ordinary may well have been the most anticipated of them all. It was one of the films announced early at the start of June and tickets sold out several weeks in advance. On the Saturday evening of the festival a very large crowd gathered outside the Town Hall Theatre before the domestic premiere with co-directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman present alongside leading performers Maeve Higgins and Will Forte. The marketing team even went the extra mile by offering free shots of an alcoholic drink referred to as “ectoplasm” (as you will learn below, ectoplasm plays a key part in Extra Ordinary).
Once inside, I found myself seated next to one of the country’s most esteemed producers and to this person’s left was one of Ireland’s best-known and highly regarded actresses. When an audience member (and fellow reviewer) decided to exit the row a time too many, the producer wryly declared that she wouldn’t be letting the offender back in upon his return and that he’d have to sit on the floor. While the threat was tongue in cheek, the idea of patrons being reduced to standing or sitting on steps started to look like a real possibility as the crowd continued to stream through the door. Eventually, every seat in the auditorium was filled and the lights dimmed.
In Extra Ordinary Maeve Higgins stars as Rose Dooley, a lonely woman working as a driving instructor somewhere in small town Ireland. This uneventful existence is in direct contrast to her childhood days, a time when Rose used her paranormal abilities to assist her father (Risteard Cooper, mainly seen in flashbacks but funny), a spiritualist and TV personality. One day a terrible accident left Rose without a father but with a great feeling of guilt instead due to her perceived part in the tragedy (an incident Rose refers to as dad-slaughter). From that day on Rose shunned her psychic gifts.
Martin is a widower living with his teenage daughter Sarah (Emma Coleman). This is no normal household though as the spirit of Martin’s deceased wife Bonnie continues to linger (quite literally), bringing extreme nuisance to their lives rather than any fear. Martin is regularly the victim of minor acts of violence at Bonnie’s expense. “Catastrophes” such as choosing the wrong shirt or placing a bowl into a plate spot of the dishwasher result in swift reprehension for him (for example cabinet doors are regularly slammed against Martin’s head by his not quite late spouse). He enlists Rose’s services, initially under the false pretense of requiring driving lessons. The truth soon emerges though with Martin admitting that he needs Rose to bring her spiritual talents out of retirement so she can help rid him of Bonnie’s meddlesome presence. That’s not even the half of it though. What’s more pressing is the fact that lately Martin has found Sarah levitating above her bed. Christian Winter (Will Forte) is the man behind this. Winter, a once-famous for fifteen minutes rock-star, now living in Ireland (for tax purposes no less) has somehow become convinced that the demonic sacrifice of a virgin will reignite his long since evaporated musical talents (if they ever existed at all). Sarah fits the bill perfectly for this purpose as far as Winter is concerned.
In most cases Rose would have flat out refused to get involved in something like this. However, as she’s quite smitten with Martin she agrees to assist him, explaining that the only way to prevent Winter’s dastardly wishes from coming to fruition is to collect enough ectoplasm (told you it plays a key part) to be able to cast a specific spell. To obtain this ectoplasm they have to partner up and carry out a series of exorcisms all over town. In these instances Martin is required to inhabit the spirit of the deceased so Rose can expunge it.
The script plays to Maeve Higgins’ strengths (she has a writing credit) and her charming awkwardness brings about many of the laughs. In the post screening Q&A, Ahern and Loughman explained that from day one the part was written with Higgins in mind. Higgins joked that the character is not based on her in real life.
Over the past few years, strong central performances in films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Maze have cemented Barry Ward’s reputation as an actor of real pedigree. Those were dramatic turns however and comedy is a whole other discipline. Apparently Ward turned down the role in Extra Ordinary at the first time of asking. Luckily for him so that he reconsidered, as he has now added the bow of comedy to his string of talents. He gives a very funny performance, especially in the scenes where Martin is forced to inhabit spirits and operate as multiple personalities at once, showing a real flair for physical comedy.
As antagonist Christian Winter, Will Forte sports a ridiculous moustache and carries a large magical wooden staff (referred to at one point as a “willy stick”), which directs him in his evil underworld dealings. The character doesn’t feel new but more like the kind of villain we’ve become accustomed to seeing in comedy-horrors like Extra Ordinary. Forte can do this kind of thing in his sleep and although he hams it up suitably, I have to admit that his shtick got repetitive quickly (more a script issue than an actor issue), save for some very funny moments during the final act. His involvement will likely help the film to find a foreign audience though. Claudia O’ Doherty, so very funny in last year’s The Festival, is a rather irritating presence this time around. She plays Winter’s wife and her character’s response to every problem seems to be to “kill the bitch”, a statement that becomes a catchphrase very quickly and loses steam even quicker. Extra Ordinary works best when focusing on the relationship between Martin and Rose. Both of them are sympathetic characters and it’s not hard for the audience to root for them to end up together.
One area that the film certainly succeeds in is tone. In an early scene Rose stands at her father’s roadside grave and dolefully says: “I’m very sorry for murdering you daddy.” Maeve Higgins’ innocent and deadpan delivery makes this line genuinely funny. Add to this the fact that Barry Ward’s character’s full name is Martin Martin and you know what you’re in for. Ahern and Loughman are in no doubt about the kind of movie they want Extra Ordinary to be – a funny one. The film is a comedy above all else and while there are of course some touching moments, at no point does the humour play second fiddle. The absurd mood remains consistent from the opening title (a Fargoesque “Based On A True Story”) right through to the final piece of dialogue, a gloriously savage condemnation. Although paranormal activity is the theme, Extra Ordinary is never really scary at all. It’s not clear when the film is set. It could easily be the present day but there are glimpses of VHS tapes and cassettes on occasion. Regardless, there is a retro look to Extra Ordinary that is reminiscent of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in terms of atmosphere and it serves the comedy well.
The storyline itself is not exactly the most original. To be fair though, one promo did advertise the film as “Father Ted meets Ghostbusters” which is pretty much on the nose. There are many little witty details specific to Ireland that will be appreciated by the domestic audience. Credit to the filmmakers too for avoiding some of the obvious Irish tropes. In the post screening Q&A they explained that in writing the script, they only had three rules – “No priests. No drinking. No IRA”. Extra Ordinary has secured North American distribution and it will be interesting to see how it travels. For example, the Americans are unlikely to appreciate the cameos from Mary McEvoy and Eamon Morrissey as much as us locals!
It’s no secret that Extra Ordinary scooped the Fleadh Award for Best Film. The audience at the screening certainly appreciated it too with many people in hysterics throughout. However, it has to be said that at a film festival (especially on home soil), the laughter will always be louder and the plaudits always greater. The thing most people will want to know is if the film is actually funny. The answer is that Extra Ordinary is fun and has plenty going for it but I don’t feel it’s the hilarious work of originality that many might proclaim it to be. Not every gag hits home and in parts the script is a bit flabby. However, the jokes do come at a breakneck pace and are so frequent in fact that there are probably more laughs in this film than the average comedy. On the other hand though, this also means there’s quite a number of misses too.
George Brennan’s score is fantastic and the parts of Extra Ordinary that are funny are very funny indeed. There is some great use of dialogue in the script with certain lines likely to be quoted years from now, e.g, Martin fears his daughter will become a “homeless sex maniac on the streets snorting hash”. At another point Christian Winter’s laments: “Can one not just sacrifice a virgin in peace?” The finale is also a completely bizarre and off the wall spectacle with the film boasting one of the most imaginative and least gratuitous threesomes you are ever likely to see on screen.
In general, there is much to like about Extra Ordinary but be warned… It’s not a comedy to suit everyone and viewers will likely need to be in the right mood for it. Extra Ordinary feels like a cult film in the making. However, if future audiences like it as much as those at the Fleadh did, then it might become more than that.
Extra Ordinary screened 13th July as part of the 2019 Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July).
Extra Ordinary is released in Irish cinemas 13th September 2019.