One doesn’t give much thought these days to Irish immigrants when picturing day laborers. Oh, once upon a time, the history books taught us, Irish immigrants and their scarcely more tolerated Chinese counterparts helped link up the country via the railroad. But that was, what, 125, 150 years ago? Today, the first images that might pop into our heads when we think of ethnic enclaves are of Chinatown or of unofficially designated street corners where construction foremen can hire truckloads of Hispanic day laborers.
Yet as “2 x 4,” Jimmy Smallhorne’s valiant but disjointed look at a crew of Irish New York construction workers reminds us, the notion of a modern day Irish enclave is alive and well. Johnnie Maher (Smallhorne) is this fun-loving bunch’s foreman, if for no other reason than that their employer, Trump (the late Chris O’Neill), who bears an uncanny resemblance to an older, far more worn Roger Daltry of “The Who,” is Johnnie’s creepy cheapskate of an uncle. Continuously short on payroll for the increasingly grumbling crew and way behind schedule on their renovation job, Trump Consolidated finds itself in a crisis, with Trump spinning furiously to appease the building’s hard-nosed Hasidic owners. Needless to say, it’s not the best of times for Johnnie to lapse into a personal crisis. Yet, that’s precisely what happens after his cute girlfriend Maria (Kimberly Topper goads him into sporting a pair of tight leather pants at the local pub. Clothes, as the old saying goes, make the man. In Johnnie’s case, the leather duds somehow ignite a repressed bisexuality within the tawny foreman. Soon he’s patronizing gay bars and cheating on Maria with Christian (Bradley Fitts), a male prostitute whom he met in the park and with whom he reluctantly begins an affair. As events spiral further out of control, Johnnie experiences ever more intense nightmares; horrific flashes into a repressed childhood that build to one last purging revelation…and casts Trump in a new and savory light.
The biggest problems with “2 x 4” are how forced and out of the blue this homosexual subtext feels; particularly how this aspect of Johnnie’s personality has no bearing on his daytime existence. His Dr. Jekyl literally transforms from a monogamous heterosexual into a veritable gay Mr. Hyde in about the amount of time it takes to pull on a pair of leather trousers, yet he embarks on this life-altering secret existence as casually as if he’d just joined the book club. Aside from the judgmental decadent tone of the homosexual encounters, still played as if filming two men kissing were some “shocking” taboo, the film offered a nonetheless fascinating and educational glimpse inside the sub-culture of the Irish day laborer. Unfortunately Smallhorne’s intense Johnnie isn’t the most sympathetic of leads, at least until the film’s last few frames shed some light on his past traumas. Johnnie’s leather pants made the man face his past. It just wasn’t a very enjoyable process for us to have to watch.