Thematically and topically, Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto is a kind of 21st century, post-sexual revolution update of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. But whereas scholars have correctly assessed Woolf's novel as intrinsically comic, the wryness of Jordan's picture remains confined to its glossy surface, masking unbearably tragic narrative roots. At heart, Pluto is a film about a victim -- and it rests on the question of survival, investigating the power of the imagination (and self-reinvention) to help one transcend the limitations and burdens that life thrusts onto one's back. For Patrick (Patricia) "Kitten" Braden (Cillian Murphy) -- the bastard offspring of a priest and a waif, bereft on a doorstep during infancy by his single mother and packed off to live with a tyrannical stepmother -- survival is twofold: first, so deeply imbibing the spirit of the mother he lacks and so making that identity his own that he becomes all but invincible; and second, reshaping and reworking his story as a self-myth that enables him, psychologically and spiritually, to cement his own spin on reality (in our minds and his own) as a storyteller. In co-adapting Patrick McCabe's picaresque novel, Jordan and McCabe couldn't have approached Braden's tale from any angle other than filtering it through Kitten's rose-colored autobiographical flashback -- the grief of the story would have been devastating. The film thrives on a conceptual level, but only because Jordan and McCabe approach the story as a piece of subjective whimsy, a Victorian narrative construction (echoing Henry Fielding) with cloying flourishes. Such is a masterstroke -- the approach makes the story psychologically bearable for Patrick and emotionally bearable for the audience. The computer-generated birds, the swirling strains of "Sugar Baby Love," the kitschy fairy-tale presentation -- function as desperate emotional shields projected by Kitten. But Jordan demonstrates keen intuition by never being content to leave the film on this level. Pluto acquires depth because of those rare and precious moments when Jordan and McCabe allow truth to emerge through Braden's self-defense mechanism (and through the narrative concealments), and the entire persona of Kitten reveals itself as a kind of ruse, a certifiably eccentric means of surviving trauma unscathed. Pluto's most devastating scene -- when magician Bertie (Stephen Rea) hypnotizes Kitten before an audience and lures her into ultimately believing that an acoustic speaker is her mother incarnate (note how Murphy races up and throws his entire weight against the speaker, sobbing) -- is also Jordan's most inspired: under hypnosis, with no defense mechanisms to guard him, the real Patrick, with his inner desperation, comes bursting through his facades. In the end, Jordan makes his gutsiest move by equating Patrick's coping mechanism with the full formation of Patricia's identity -- and treating it as a healthy occurrence instead of a pathology. All of which is brilliant enough and impressive enough to make this one of Jordan's most deeply satisfying works. And in terms of conception and execution, it is. Unfortunately, it suffers from an overwhelming related problem, embedded deeply into the material: because of Jordan's whimsical, rose-colored, distancing take on the story, it almost completely -- by virtue of approach -- lacks emotional weight.
Another criticism commonly directed at the film can be deemed negligible. All descriptions of Pluto as a "cinematic Candide" fail, for the apparently loosely knit structure of Pluto cannot withstand comparison to greater films of Voltairean narrative architecture (such as Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!). Simply put, Pluto's array of characters isn't quite varied and multicolored enough. When one reflects on the Jordan film, its British and Irish characters and events run together into a kind of shapeless blob in one's mind. But no matter: the film's picaresque leanings are sophistic. For beneath the outer layers of its structure -- seemingly so episodic, so haphazard -- Jordan pins down a calculated and deliberate character arc. He follows Patrick from a nebulous assumed identity (in the early portions of the film) to the confident woman who is Patricia; her ability to land a home, both nominally (with the address of the strip club where she ultimately works) and spiritually (with her father's reacceptance of her) at the story's conclusion brings the story a nearly perfect wrap-up. Kitten has become not merely a man posing as a woman, but a woman incarnate. And Jordan, McCabe, and Murphy make her transformation so convincing and credible, in the end, that they are able to inspire all but the most hardened cynics among us.