*** 1/2 stars
The pleasure of watching “T2: Trainspotting” is different from that of other movies. The pleasure comes mostly from the director, Danny Boyle, but it’s not the pleasure of bedazzlement, of getting shook up and shocked and jostled. Its pleasures are friendlier than that, easier, wittier.
At its best, and “T2” is mostly at its best, there’s a kind of joy about it, and a joy in watching it, of sitting back and witnessing a succession of beautiful and clever surprises, of never knowing what’s coming next, and of always having that next thing be something better than you might have ever guessed.
Boyle has been guilty in the past of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity. If you wanted to be grumpy, you could say the same for “T2,” except that here he’s not trying to impress the audience. He’s trying to delight the audience, and he succeeds, frame by frame, idea on top of idea, coming up with brand new ways to please, literally, from the first shot until the last.
The first “Trainspotting” was released in 1996, an unexpected hit about heroin addiction among Scottish working-class youth. It was a funny movie, despite all the scenes involving needles. This one is even funnier, possibly because the heroin element has been reduced to almost nothing, but also because the characters are all 20 years older and can’t quite take themselves as seriously, even though they try.
The first thing we see are feet on a treadmill. They belong to Renton (Ewan McGregor), who looks in good shape for a fellow who was strung out 20 years ago. It’s a triumphant image of health, but Boyle undercuts this immediately with tiny flashbacks to Renton as a youth, suggesting the lingering presence of bad memories. And then the scene resolves into sudden slapstick. This is Boyle having fun, starting his movie in a way someone else might … and then saying no, this is not going to be the usual thing.
The excuse for “T2” is Renton’s return to Scotland after a 20-year absence. He arrives to find himself in a new, Europeanized Edinburgh, with women speaking in funny accents handing out tourist information at the airport. (“Where are you from?” he asks one of them. The answer: “Slovenia.”) We soon learn that, back in the day, Renton robbed his old buddies. Now he’s back to pay his debts.
All the characters get a flashy introduction. Begbie (Robert Carlyle), an explosive maniac, is in prison, screaming at and terrifying his lawyer. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie and living a pathetic existence. In a scene both laugh-out-loud funny and unbelievably grotesque, he is in the process of suffocating himself with a plastic bag when Renton comes to visit him. And Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) is working low-level scams. The ambition of his life is to set up a brothel, with his new Bulgarian girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova) working as his madam.
The script by John Hodge, loosely based on two “Trainspotting” novels by Irvine Welsh, has a slapdash feeling, as though one thing were following another, with no plan or reason. At times, viewers may have trouble figuring out what’s going on, assuming they care enough to try. But there’s nothing casual about Hodge’s ability to hold an audience’s attention. Hodge gives scenes a solid grounding, which allows Boyle to take flight.
In “T2,” Boyle never stops thinking of interesting things to do. Renton visits his father, and they talk in the kitchen about Renton’s dead mother. As they do, we notice Renton’s shadow is filling the empty chair at the table. The light source makes no sense. It’s just a fun touch, there for the sake of being there.
Later in the film, Boyle starts a sex scene to the accompaniment of the 1979 Blondie song “Dreaming,” which never sounded so good. Intuiting that the audience doesn’t want the song to stop, Boyle fills the screen with a series of sights and incidents involving other characters, such as Spud’s renovation of a bar. There’s nothing to analyze here, nothing to dissect, just a joyful combination and sounds and images that will probably please every living soul that sees it.
No, “T2” is not a great film, but its pleasures are great — and so rare and accomplished that it raises “T2” to a level approximating greatness. There is something to be said for a movie this enjoyable. “T2” is great enough.