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Non-Review Review: Extra Ordinary

Extra Ordinary is very Irish ghost story.

“Irishness” is a very nebulous quantity. It can be very hard to precisely quantify. In humour, it tends towards a blend of irony and irreverence, often a surreal juxtaposition of the mundane with the surreal. As such, Extra Ordinary feels like a very Irish ghost story. It is a film anchored in the tropes and conventions of ghost stories – possessions, exorcisms, hauntings, satanic pacts – but which contextualises these things as just another minor frustration of country living. As the title implies, Extra Ordinary exists at the junction of the familiar and the uncanny. If the team produce a sequel, they should call it “Super Natural.”

Driving curiosity.

Extra Ordinary adopts a uniquely Irish approach to its premise, wondering what happens to those ghosts that are a bit less dramatic and lot more mundane than the usual spirits. There’s something engagingly quirky in Extra Ordinary’s depiction of the eccentricity of country living, and how so much of that eccentricity just goes on as a fact of life; the dancing lead attached to a discarded toaster, the tree branch that sways without even a breeze, the wheelie bin that just keeps flapping through the night. This is just the way that things are in this part of the world, and the locals have (mostly) made their peace with it.

Despite its supernatural premise, the most endearing aspect of Extra Ordinary is how perfectly it captures the smaller and more intimate eccentricities of the Irish countryside.

Now I seance you…

The basic premise of Extra Ordinary is simple enough. Rose is a driving instructor, but she also has “the talent.” This “talent” is effectively sort of sixth sense that pops up in these sorts of films; Rose can communicate with spirits trapped between worlds and help them move on. However, after a freak accident involving a possessed pothole, a lost puppy and her documentarian father, Rose has sworn off her gift. Her life consists of eking out a living teaching people how to drive and coming home to a dinner of lasagna “for one.” (One of the film’s most amusing recurring jokes focuses on the local off-brand food manufacturer.)

However, as is the way of such things, Rose finds herself drawn back into the fold following a freak encounter with the widowed Martin (“eh… Martin Martin”), who is haunted by his wife’s spirit who still picks out his shirts, reminds him when the car tax comes due and dispenses veterinarian advice on slices of toast. Things naturally escalate from there, leading the pair on a series of misadventures that include demonic possession, “gloating” (that’s when a goat… floats) and a washed up American “one-hit wonder” named Christian Winters who has retired to the Irish countryside because of its scenic beauty and lucrative tax breaks.

Life lessons.

Extra Ordinary is elevated by three key strengths. Most obviously, it is very funny. Extra Ordinary is unafraid to commit to the absurdity of its premise, rightly trusting that the audience will go along with any number of incongruities or surreal juxtapositions if the film is funny enough. Like any good crowd pleaser, Extra Ordinary pitches itself both broad and specific; riffing on the iconography and internal logic of horror cinema as readily as it jokes about the absurdity and contradictions of rural Irish life. Extra Ordinary is a comedy as willing to joke about The Exorcist as Ireland’s… somewhat lax tax system.

With these sorts of films, the density of the humour is important. In the spirit of broad spoofs like Airplane! or Top Secret or Hot Shots, writers Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman (with assistance from Demian Fox and lead Maeve Higgins) pitch as many jokes as quickly as they can. Not all of the jokes land, but more than enough work to sustain the film. More than that, the speed with which Extra Ordinary moves keeps the audience on side. Even if a given joke doesn’t pay off, there will be another one arriving shortly enough.

Sacrifices must be made.

Just as charming is the ease with which directors Enda Loughman and Miles Ahern draw from their obvious influences. Extra Ordinary lifts iconic shots and compositions from a variety of horror films. There’s something very canny in this. Loughman and Ahern are obviously drawing from the classic populist horrors of the seventies, but the direction feels surprisingly fresh and relevant because of how much contemporary horror cinema is drawing from those same films. When Extra Ordinary homages The Exorcist, it also situates itself in parallel to the wave of modern horrors that draw just as reverently from Friedkin’s classic.

For example, Extra Ordinary repeatedly employs the ubiquitous overhead car-driving-through-trees shot that has been popular since The Shining. However, that shot still pops up today in mainstream straight horrors like Pet Sematary. Like all good comedy directors, Loughman and Ahern are clearly fluent in the cinematic language of the films upon which they are riffing. This attention to detail, and obvious affection for the genre, helps to ground the film’s absurdity. It establishes the sort of heightened reality against which the film’s cartoonish hyjinks unfold.

“The names Martin. Martin Martin.”

Finally, Extra Ordinary benefits from a game cast, led by Maeve Higgins. Higgins is gamely supported by Barry Ward and Will Forte. In particular, as much as the directorial choices anchor the film in the horror genre, Forte’s performance helps guide it over to surrealist comedy. As with all comedies, the actors strike a delicate balance between something recognisably human and something ridiculously exaggerated. As goofy as Rose’s “dad slaughter” or “ex-wife-orcism” might be, Higgins finds something strangely moving and universal in the character, which keeps the audience invested even as the comedic premises keep escalating.

If there is a problem with Extra Ordinary, the film relies a little too heavily on the cliché of the strong (and often abusive) woman and the meek (but also often resentful) male partner. The film seems populated with these couples; Martin and his dead wife, Christian and Claudia, Sailor and Brian, even a couple arguing over the recycle bin after the husband’s death. It works largely because the cast are committed and the film is so heightened (and the jokes so dense) that the audience never lingers on the dynamic. That said, it gets a little distracting, and feels just a little ill-judged. It’s a minor complaint, but it is there.

There’s a lot to like about Extra Ordinary. It’s charming, engaging and beautifully committed to what it’s doing. It’s certainly well-named. It is, in many ways, extraordinary.

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