Satirical Comedy About Toupees Is Ridiculous, But Fun
To be sure, this satirical comedy is not about bald men, as much as it's about the hairpieces or "hair systems" sold to men as hair loss treatments.
There aren’t many movies that have as their main focus issues of particular concern to bald people. There are a handful of documentaries, such as “The Combover,” which looks at the much-maligned hairstyle of many balding men. But usually, especially in “fiction” films, hair loss issues are “front and center” only if a leading character is battling an illness which in some way involves the loss of hair.
“An Everlasting Piece” does not truthfully have bald men front and center as its protagonists (although the two do eventually sport a bald look, more about that later). But toupees (or as they are commonly known now as "hair systems") and the selling of same is the engine that gives “Piece” its momentum and so it’s a film in which the “follicle-ly challenged” should take a special interest.
Here’s the plot, in brief: It’s the early 1980s in Belfast. Colm (Barry McEvoy, who also wrote the screenplay), a young Catholic man who’s drifting a bit aimlessly, is encouraged by his more determined girlfriend Bronagh (Anna Friel), to take a job as a barber at the mental hospital where she works. He strikes up a friendship with the other barber at the hospital, George (Brian F. O’Byrne), a Protestant. When a new patient, “The Scalper” (Billy Connolly), is admitted, they learn that before he went “over the edge,” he was the sole supplier of all toupees in the entire region.
Colm and George finagle Scalper into parting with his list of clients and go into the toupee business for themselves. But the toupee manufacturer has decided to let another team also compete for the franchise in the area, and the race is on to see whether newcomers Colm and George’s “Piece People” can win out over the much slicker “Toupee or Not Toupee.”
“Piece,” which was directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), was released in 2000 to a lukewarm critical reaction and an indifferent public. While it would be a mistake to label it a masterpiece, it’s a very funny, warm film with some winning and quirky characters, solid direction and very finely observed performances.
To be sure, it has faults, its biggest one being that it can’t quite make the metaphoric leap of relating its characters travails to the larger Catholic-Protestant divide that permeated the country.
Also problematic is its resolution of the central sticky problem: Colm is given the opportunity to supply the IRA with a large shipment of toupees and initially agrees. Bronagh condemns him for this, because he didn’t consult with George and is betraying his buddy. Yet after Colm breaks off the deal, Bronagh sets up an arrangement whereby the boys can sell a huge number of toupees directly to British soldiers suffering Alopecia due to stress. The filmmakers go to great pains to make a humanitarian case for this transaction, but it still comes across as a bit of double standard.
So “Piece” has its problems as well as its rewards as a film. Now, how does it rate when it comes to presenting the “hair loss community?” Overall, a bit better than might be expected.
“It does seem that the fact of a character being bald is treated as a basis for humor and, at least to a small degree, for ridicule. Part of this is simply due to the fact that the film is a comedy, and as Steve Martin famously said, “Comedy isn’t pretty.” Humor tends to have a basis in cruelty, at least to a small degree.”
First, it should be made clear that “Piece” isn’t ABOUT bald men: it’s about a product sold to bald men, so presenting a balanced or totally realistic picture isn’t part of its agenda. It’s also a satirical comedy filled with quirky characters, so looking for reality in its portrayals isn’t necessarily appropriate.
That said, it does seem that, as with many films, the fact of a character being bald is treated as a basis for humor and, at least to a small degree, for ridicule. (Again, part of this is simply due to the fact that the film is a comedy, and as Steve Martin famously said, “Comedy isn’t pretty.” Humor tends to have a basis in cruelty, at least to a small degree.) None of the individual clients receive toupees which really could pass for their real hair. This could have been used to demonstrate Colm and George’s inexperience, but instead is used to portray the vanity and ignorance of the customers. To be fair, however, the group of young soldiers who are to receive hairpieces are shown in a dignified and sympathetic light.
At one point in the film, Colm and George shave their own heads, with the idea being that at the end of a sales call they will doff their own toupees and reveal their bald heads to demonstrate to their customers the advantage of wearing hear. This didn’t work out sales-wise, but the filmmakers deserve credit for the manner in which this was handled. Clearly, the characters were reluctant to part with their own locks, but there wasn’t the carrying on and screaming that could easily have accompanied it, and they didn’t spend the rest of the picture berating Bronagh for coming up with the idea.
It would have been nice if “Piece” had resisted the temptation to portray most of its toupee wearers as a bit ridiculous. Still, one of them is fleshed out a bit more than might be expected, and his scene when he realizes that his toupee is not the prize it had initially seemed is both humorous and affecting.
Though not perfect, “Piece” is still a fine and entertaining film and is worth searching out.
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