Director: Stephan Elliott
Stars: Johnathon Schaech, Rod Taylor, Susie Porter, Dee Smart
First viewing, via Stan
Where to begin?
I’ve spent a good chunk of the past few weeks pondering that question, wondering what film to launch this website with.
Obviously, given the site’s focus on films that flew under the radar or fell through the cracks, it couldn’t be one of the 41 films to win Best Picture at Australia’s version of the Oscars, the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (formerly Australian Film Institute) awards. Nor could it be on this list of the 100 highest earning Australian films. That’s not to say films on either list won’t crop up eventually – commercial or award success aren’t always guarantors of cultural longevity – but simply that they won’t be cropping up yet.
No, the first film spotlighted had to firmly reflect Down Under Flix’s mission statement: a film that had slipped from or never hit the cultural consciousness, that had fallen into neglect and needed some attention. Something to set the tone, both for the site and myself. And, of course, I wanted to start with a bang.
Welcome to Woop Woop ticked all those boxes, especially the “start with a bang” part. In fact, if there was ever an explosion in an Australian souvenir shop, the town of Woop Woop would be created from the scattered debris.
Director Stephan Elliott’s previous film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is an iconic piece of Australian cinema. It’s one of the great popular, popcorn entertainments of the 1990s, alongside Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, Babe, and The Castle, and it’s certainly the most daring of that pack. Of Elliott’s follow-up films, the only one I’d seen prior to now was Eye of the Beholder, a cool little gem of a thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd. I’m yet to watch more recent fare like Easy Virtue and A Few Best Men, but I’m glad to have finally caught up with Welcome to Woop Woop.
Released in 1997, Welcome to Woop Woop centres on the terminally unlucky Teddy (Johnathon Schaech), an American who flees to Australia following an incident abroad. There he meets and beds the adorable Angie (Susie Porter), who drugs and transports him to the outback town of Woop Woop. The town’s off the map, hidden from the rest of the world, and populated by a collection of misfits lorded over by town elder (and Angie’s father) Daddy-O (Rod Taylor). Think M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, but as a broad comedy where everyone happens to be in on the secret. Teddy’s mind instantly turns to escape…
Broad “ocker” comedies aren’t really that prevalent these days, outside of movies and shows like Fat Pizza and Housos. But it was the default setting for most Australian comedies in the 1990s, as films like Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle and Elliott’s own Priscilla attest, and Elliott lays it on really, really thick in Welcome to Woop Woop. I suspect this was one of the straws that broke the genre’s back – the film cost 10 million dollars and only made half a million in theatres – but the broad ocker stuff actually serves a deeper thematic purpose here. The film presents the town of Woop Woop as backwards and anachronistic, and depicts that particular brand of national identity – that boisterous, coarse larrikinism – as something that’s toxic, obnoxious, even insidious. It is, Elliott seems to be suggesting, something to be both indulged and celebrated but also reviled, and the film does both these things. Viewers with a bad case of cultural cringe will do some heavy cringing, but that’s very much intended.
Of course, there’s a long tradition of films and literary works about Americans or Europeans coming to Australia and being put through the ringer, from classic canonical works like Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life and D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo to flicks like Wake in Fright, Roadgames, Razorback and The Proposition. Welcome to Woop Woop provides yet another variation on that formula, though American actor Johnathon Schaech – fresh off the Tom Hanks-directed That Thing You Do! – is no Stacey Keach or Ray Winstone. He’s fine though, and his beta leading man status provides a nice counterpoint to the more animated locals of Woop Woop. Elsewhere in the cast, Susie Porter does great work, milking some pathos from a very deliberate caricature, and Rod Taylor is likewise great, making me wish we’d seen a bit more of him in local fare over the years.
Summary: Welcome to Woop Woop is grating at times, but very deliberately so. If your tastes don’t go for the broad ocker fare, it’s a hard watch, but that cultural cringe is also a big part of the film’s overall message. It’s smarter than it looks.
Next week: Police procedural Felony (2013)