It’s a common enough sight in Christmas films: holiday shoppers admiring animatronic window displays and taking advantage of the sales at department stores while appropriate music plays over the loudspeakers. In 1984’s hard-to-find Comfort and Joy, which opens with a rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” so no one can miss from whence its title comes, writer-director Bill Forsyth upends expectations by focusing our attention on a woman among the throng who’s shoplifting and, what’s more, being observed by a man following her around the store as she surreptitiously tucks items into her coat and bag. When she checks out, purchasing something of modest value compared to what she’s stolen, he briskly follows her out the door, making the first-time viewer wonder if he’s the store detective about to collar her. Instead, Forsyth reveals him to be the thief’s boyfriend, who’s more nervous about her being caught than she apparently is.
This is our introduction to Alan “Dickie” Bird, a Glasgow morning DJ and local celebrity played by Bill Paterson, who ably anchors Forsyth’s follow-up to his breakout hit Local Hero (which recently received the Criterion treatment). Not long after they’ve gotten home and started decorating their tree with the four strings of lights she’s stolen (unnecessarily, as it turns out, since they already had two), Alan watches as Maddy (Eleanor David) wordlessly starts packing and then casually announces she’s leaving him — tonight. (“I meant to tell you ages ago, but the moment didn’t arise,” she says.) Alan’s entreaties to talk about it fall on deaf ears, though, when the movers show up and set about clearing the apartment of most of its contents. “Don’t let’s drag it out, Alan. Don’t be cruel,” Maddy says, acting like the wounded party and demonstrating how lucky he is to be rid of her (once he gets over the shock, that is).
The next morning, the freshly single Alan gets up at an ungodly hour to work at the radio station, a scene Forsyth underscores with a grim news report about two broken Christmas truces in the Middle and Far East. The Dickie Bird Early Worm Show must go on, though, and Alan puts on as brave a face as possible under the circumstances. As someone whose job it is to help his fellow Glaswegians greet the day on an upbeat note, he can’t let on that he’s a broken man. Later on, the number of Christmas truces in jeopardy has been upped to no fewer than eight, making it seem like the whole world is going to pieces in sympathy.
After calling on his best friend for some moral support and being told he’s lucky to have the chance to “break out and start all over again,” Alan takes the sight of a pretty girl (Clare Grogan, late of Forsyth’s 1981 film Gregory’s Girl) on a Mr. Bunny ice cream truck as a sign and impulsively follows it to its next stop so he can make a purchase and do a little awkward flirting. He also bears witness to a very un-Christmas-y display when a car pulls up and two thugs in balaclavas jump out and proceed to smash up the truck. (In a surreal touch, as they make their getaway, one of them recognizes Alan and aggressively asks him for an autograph, which he’s too stunned to supply.)
Things escalate the following morning when Alan finds his BMW has been broken into and dozens of ice cream cones left on the seats with a note warning him to stay silent. This is the exact wrong tack to take with him, though, as it only encourages Alan to dig deeper and learn more about the curious rivalry between the upstart Mr. Bunny operation and the more established Mr. McCool’s, which is a family-run business in the same way the mafia is. Mr. McCool and his sons are even Italian, which is as incongruous as it sounds, but their capacity for destruction is straightforward enough, their hardball tactics reminiscent of the ones used by Bob Hoskins’s gangland boss in 1980’s The Long Good Friday. (Suggested alternate title: The Long Ice Cream Sundae.)
Alan’s pursuit of the story and attempt to turn it into a serious documentary for the station (a pilot for a possible series he has punningly titled Bird’s Eye View) worries its managing director, Hilary (Rikki Fulton, one of the locals from Local Hero), who’s so concerned about his on-air talent’s mental state that he asks whether Alan’s contract has a “sanity clause,” a line that provokes a Chico Marxian response from his secretary. The last straw comes, though, when Alan starts slipping messages for Mr. Bunny into his on-air patter, prompting Hilary to demand he see a psychiatrist. “Don’t worry,” Alan says, attempting to put his boss’s mind at ease. “I’m still miserable. I’ll be miserable for ages.”
That’s the thing about Comfort and Joy that makes it such atypical holiday fare. Even as Alan gets roped into more and more absurd situations — with his beloved BMW frequently getting the worst of it — Forsyth never loses sight of his lead’s profound melancholy and the genuine sense of loss he feels. This is reinforced by the dreams Alan has where Maddy has come back to him, which he immediately recognizes upon waking as wishful thinking. Once he accepts that he’s not getting her back (nor should he want to) and there’s little he can do about the sorry state of the world, Alan’s resolve to broker a truce between the rival ice cream companies that are making life unnecessarily difficult for him becomes that much stronger. Who knows? With any luck, it may even last through New Year’s.
If Comfort and Joy isn’t as well-known as it could be, this has less to do with its quality than the fact that, apart from a long out-of-print VHS, it has never received a Region A/1 release. (That one of the scenes at the radio station has Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” playing underneath it could be the culprit here.) This is a shame because Forsyth’s quirky sense of humor is one to be cherished, and this film, like Local Hero before it, boasts a winning score by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, which is namechecked when one of Alan’s coworkers commiserates with him about his romantic woes. By the time he’s toasting his listeners on Christmas Day, however, he’s largely put those behind him. “Cheers, everybody in this great big, weird and wonderful city of ours,” Alan says, and having seen precisely how weird it can get, it’s a sure bet he means it.