A delectable new comedy from Scotland
His real name is Alan, but his fans know him as Dickie Bird, the amiable radio personality whose ''Early Worm Show'' helps Glasgow greet the dawn each day.
He enjoys his work and the modest fame it brings. But in an early scene of ''Comfort and Joy,'' life takes a sour turn. His girlfriend walks out, leaving him lonely and adrift. He still has his audience, but it can't offer the companionship he craves. He finds himself drifting around the city, poking into corners he never noticed before, vaguely hoping for some sign or clue to a new direction.
And that's how a settled, unadventurous man finds himself in the middle of the great Glasgow ice-cream war. It all begins when he spots a funny-looking truck with ''Mr. Bunny'' painted on the side. Like a middle-aged Alice chasing the White Rabbit into Wonderland, he follows it - and stumbles on an odd corner of the economy where everyone is in the dessert business.
It's a brave new world, if a faintly ridiculous one, and it draws Dickie Bird helplessly, hilariously into its clutches. He starts to have the last thing he expected: adventures! They're the substance of ''Comfort and Joy,'' the gentle new comedy from Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, best known for last year's best picture, ''Local Hero.''
The laughs in ''Comfort and Joy'' rarely come from broad punch lines or slapstick. The humor is subtler and sneakier than most, growing from characters and situations that are just the tiniest bit off-kilter. You have to see Dickie Bird's shoplifting girlfriend to appreciate how funny she is. Ditto for the psychiatrist with a fixation on boats. And the passionate partisans of the Mr. Bunny and Mr. McCool franchises. And the murky garage where nomadic ice cream merchants plot their strategies. And the sublimely stupid face of the Mr. Bunny trademarks that decorate scene after scene.
Forsyth orchestrates these elements, and many others, into a funny-sad romp with a surprising start, a cheery climax, and a bittersweet fade-out that finds the intrepid Dickie Bird a bit wiser if not much better off. While the film lacks the breadth and depth of ''Local Hero,'' it ranks with the very best comic fare of recent years. The expert cast, headed by Scottish actor Bill Paterson, includes a bevy of versatile faces that deserve to be much better known to American viewers. Chris Menges was the expressive cinematographer. Better roles for black actors
The near-absence of significant black roles has become a chronic scandal in the movie world. So has the near-absence of films that explore black- or other minority-related issues.
So it's pleasant to greet a handful of new pictures that do something about this. One of them, ''Places in the Heart'' (reviewed in these pages Sept. 25), is basically a white folks' movie, but it features a black character (played by Danny Glover) in a key role and treats painful race issues - such as lynching - honestly and unflinchingly.
Two others, ''The Brother From Another Planet'' and ''A Soldier's Story,'' focus wholly on black problems - one with a darkly comic approach, the other with dramatic urgency. Both are welcome additions to this frivolous and mediocre Hollywood year, although it's ironic that both were directed by white filmmakers. Today as in the past, the positions of real control are even more elusive for blacks than acting jobs are.
''The Brother From Another Planet'' is about a black alien on the run from faraway slaveholders. He crash-lands near Ellis Island and swims to Harlem, where he passes as just another New York weirdo, unable to speak but gifted with telepathy and the knack of fixing things (from wounds to video games) with a touch of his E.T.-like hand. It's a romp for a while, until two spacey slave hunters sniff out his trail - and eluding them, he stumbles on the urban drug culture, which horrifies him more than anything else on earth.
The excellence of ''The Brother'' comes as a surprise after the previous movies by John Sayles, the mediocre ''Return of the Secaucus Seven'' and the simple-minded ''Lianna.'' Like those pictures, his science-fiction epic has a deliberately ramshackle look - you can tell it was shot on the run with a mighty low budget. But the portraits of black-ghetto life are richly affectionate, the characters all ring true, and the camera explores the action instead of merely gaping at it. The plot does wander in the second half, leading to an arbitrary and unconvincing climax. But most of the way ''The Brother'' is a sharp and knowing movie with a generous collection of first-rate black performances.
''A Soldier's Story'' is more openly and consistently serious. The movie, adapted by Charles Fuller from his Pulitzer Prize drama ''A Soldier's Play,'' takes place at a mostly black Louisiana Army base in 1944. A black sergeant has been murdered, and most people blame the Ku Klux Klan, which resents black soldiers wearing stripes. The government sends another black, a young captain with a law degree, to investigate the crime. Questioning men who knew the victim , he slowly realizes that the murder was sparked by an emotional violence more endemic to the black community than a KKK conspiracy.
In structure, it's a down-home version of ''Rashomon,'' with witnesses giving differing accounts of what happened, and the hero discovering a truth more complex than he imagined. With its many variations on a few themes, this format tends to repeat itself, and the dialogue doesn't always lend variety and surprise. The story's onstage origins show through in some heavy-handed exposition - it's always hard to disguise a play as a movie - and director Norman Jewison has the bad habit of signaling a character's personality through obvious details of gesture and dress.
These failings aside, though, ''A Soldier's Story'' is engaging and intelligent, reflecting Jewison's longtime commitment to socially alert cinema. Particularly incisive are the revelations closest to the drama's powerful message - that black self-hate can be one of the most devastating and insidious results of white racism, even in settings where racism seems to be at least partly overcome.
Also praiseworthy are forceful performances by Howard E. Rollins Jr. and Adolph Caesar, who head the strong cast as the investigator and victim, respectively. (Dennis Lipscomb is most memorable in the smaller white contingent.) And three cheers for the music of Herbie Hancock, who forgoes his usual modernist impulses and plunges head first into the soulful sound of the mid-'40s.
Taken together, ''A Soldier's Story'' and ''The Brother From Another Planet'' may not herald a renaissance of black-oriented filmmaking, but at least they bring talented black performers before our eyes in meaningful and relevant vehicles.
I had lunch recently with Danny Glover, the leading black actor of ''Places in the Heart,'' and he noted with emphasis that quality is important - as well as quantity - when roles are made available to minority actors.
''If there were three 'The Jeffersons' on TV and no Bill Cosby playing a doctor, then we'd really have to worry about what's going on,'' said the young performer, an American protege of celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard. And, he added, ''As brilliant as they are, if there were only Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, we'd have even more need of Lou Gossett,'' referring to an actor who is more deliberately serious than the two comedians.
''The media define and chronicle our history,'' Glover went on. ''They define how we see ourselves as human beings. So it's very important how we're represented by those media - not only for my daughters and your son, but for future daughters and sons. That's the crux of it.''
He's right. And while movies like his - along with ''The Brother'' and ''A Soldier's Story'' - are pointing the right direction, far more progress is needed.