Directed by: David Swann
Stars: Daniel Kellie, Warren Mitchell, Susan Lyons, Peter Rowsthorn,
First viewing, via DVD
Type “Christmas movies” into Google and a looooong list of titles is generated, featuring popular staples of yore (It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas) and newer titles spanning a multitude of genres, including romantic comedy (Love Actually), family entertainment (Home Alone, The Muppet Christmas Carol), comedy (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Scrooged), action (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon), and even horror (The Polar Express). Type “Australian Christmas movies”, however, and only a handful of titles come up, including two versions of Bush Christmas (one starring Chips Rafferty, the other Nicole Kidman), George T. Miller’s Bushfire Moon, and Yoram Gross’s animated Dot and Santa Claus. Should Down Under Flix last half a decade we’ll work through all those, but for the moment let’s tackle David Swann’s Christmas comedy Crackers.
Following his father’s early death in a plane crash, Joey (Daniel Kellie) has taken to scaling and leaping from great heights, among other peculiar behaviours. His mother Hilary (Susan Lyons) is at her wit’s end, but finds some solace with current boyfriend Bruno (Kath and Kim alumni Peter Rowsthorn). For Christmas, Hilary takes Joey, Bruno, and Bruno’s bullying son Angus (Christopher Chapman) to visit her parents Jack (Terry Gill) and Violet (Maggie King). Also at the party: Violet’s flirtatious sister Dottie (Valerie Bader) and Jack’s eccentric, flatulent father Albert (Warren Mitchell). The stage is set for interpersonal conflicts and Yuletide hijinks as Albert teaches Joey to fight, Bruno struggles to ingratiate himself with Hilary’s family, and all manner of dirty laundry is aired.
As a broad comedy about an average Australian family released in 1998, the shadow of the previous year’s The Castle and its titular, recently threatened Mooney Valley weatherboard looms large over Crackers. Indeed, the film’s DVD cover features a quote from David Stratton calling it “A film in the great tradition of Australian family comedy” and saying “Crackers ought to be as popular as The Castle”. Alas, its $1.26 million domestic yield pales in comparison to The Castle’s $10.3 million local grosses. Certainly, where The Castle’s characters are an innately likeable ensemble, the characters in Crackers are, at least at the outset, harsher caricatures that are harder to warm to, mostly turned up to and performed at 11 (to borrow from the parlance of This is Spinal Tap). But I also think Crackers is a better film, and indeed more of a “film”. Where director Rob Sitch and co would exhibit some strong filmmaking chops in their later production The Dish, The Castle’s filmmaking is almost lackadaisical. In contrast, Swann and co take the opposite course with Crackers, with camerawork constantly in Raimi-esque motion and getting up close and personal with the cast. It’s immersive, perhaps a bit excessive and invasive at times, but showcases a cinematic sensibility.
Moreover, while characterisations and performances feel loud-for-the-sake-of-loud in the film’s early stages, Crackers ripens with its running time: character and relationship arcs emerge and evolve, narrative threads are played out, and there are setups and payoffs and some nice, weird grace notes. Warren Mitchell is particularly good as the black sheep and well-meaning core of the family, and young actor Daniel Kellie does his best work in the film with the veteran comic. In a DVD extra, Swann notes that for him “the comedy comes out of the drama”, and the film proves (at least this viewer’s) early preconceptions wrong in building a sturdy (but not intrusive) dramatic frame on which to hang the jokes, which still come thick and fast and are, at times, thick and fast.
In summary: If craving something different from Bing Crosby, Chevy Chase, or the Gremlins this Christmas, consider popping your cracker in Crackers’ direction. As one of very few Australian films about the Christmas season, it’s something of a novelty item, and a very entertaining one.
Merry Christmas to all Down Under Flix readers. See you back here in 2017…