To some viewers, Australian comedies are a warm blanket providing comfort and joy. For some, they’re an acquired taste, the cinematic equivalent of Vegemite. For others, they’re only marginally preferable to arsenic, and for others still arsenic would be the preferred beverage of the two. Personally, I like local comedies just fine, though I’m not naturally predisposed towards them and have only seen the better known ones. In other words, I’ve seen The Castle, but not The Craic; I’ve watched The Wog Boy, but never Hercules Returns.
Throughout February and March, Down Under Flix will shine a light on thirteen Australian comedies, mostly from the 2000s. The noughties were a curious period for local comedies, a decade that yielded some big successes – The Wog Boy, The Dish, Crackerjack, Kenny – but also many duds, often from the very same creative teams. On first glance, there’s no holistic identity uniting the comedies of that period. The major comedies of the 70s – Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – rejoiced in their newly forged opportunity to present Australian identity on film (even when covertly attacking it, as per Barry Humphries’ work) and embraced the sex and the sauce thanks to the liberal attitudes and censorship of the time. The major comedies of the 80s – Crocodile Dundee and Young Einstein and Les Patterson Saves the World – commodified that Australian identity for a global audience. And the major comedies of the 90s – Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert – gave voice to misfits and social outcasts: suburban battlers and drag queens and plump downtrodden wallflowers all fell under their purview. The comedies of the 2000s, in contrast, appear less interested in cultural politics and national identity, less significant, and less meaningful overall. The outcasts had found expression, Australia’s global branding was secure, and Australian voices had pervaded both national and international cinema for three decades. What was left?
We’ll be chipping away at that question over the next few weeks, starting with these three romantic comedies. The rom-com is a genre that hews close to formula, with predictable outcomes and often diminishing returns, but when executed well can provide solid popcorn entertainment and sometimes even strike deeper chords. While none of these three films are stealth classics, for fans of the genre – and those fans are legion – they provide the usual comforts as well as some sneaky Antipodean charms.
Director: Megan Simpson Huberman
Stars:Guy Pearce, Claudia Karvan, Matt Day, Lisa Hensley, John Howard
First viewing, via DVD
Brett (Guy Pearce)is a slick music show host on the verge of bigger things. Tash (Claudia Karvan) is a shy, awkward science journalist. Opposites attract and Brett and Tash start dating, but one year into their relationship it’s obvious their wildly different personalities are incompatible. However, when Brett and Tash switch bodies and are forced to live each other’s jobs and lives, they find themselves linked in new and seismic ways.
There’s some solid gender-bending, fish-out-of-water comedy throughout Dating the Enemy, as the characters are forced to inhabit, enact, and lampoon the opposite sex. Some of the jokes and gender stereotypes are rather obvious, but overall the hits outweigh the strikes and the film is consistently witty, perceptive, and surprisingly thoughtful. Much of the film’s success rests on the comedic and romantic chemistry of its leads. Pearce is one of Australia’s best working actors and over the last decade has become a seal of good quality on locally made films, an assurance that the product is good or at the very least interesting (see The Proposition, Animal Kingdom, The Rover, Holding the Man etc). He has fun here, but the real revelation is Karvan, who I never realised was such a great comedic actress. Her performance is terrific, and I find it puzzling that Karvan, unlike Pearce, never really broke outside Australia (though based on sentiments expressed here, that maybe more due to personal choice than celebrity Darwinism). On a side note, this is one of four local productions featuring both Pearce and Karvan: they also co-star in Errol Flynn biopic Flynn, 33 Postcards, and a recent Jack Irish series, none of which involve comedic body switching.
Dating the Enemy was Megan Simpson Huberman’s sophomore and final feature film as a director, though she’s still involved in Australian cinema, working in behind the scenes capacities on many ventures and productions and currently serving on the Australian Directors Guild’s Women in Film Action Committee. It’s a shame she hasn’t directed more though, as Dating the Enemy showcases plenty of flair and savvy on its writer-director’s part. Frankly, I’m surprised this was never snapped up for an American remake with folks like Adam Sandler or Drew Barrymore or similarly mercenary casting, though another film discussed later this month did become a Happy Madison joint. Stay tuned…
Director: Jeff Balsmeyer
Stars:Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Justine Clarke, John Batchelor, Anthony Phelan
First viewing, via DVD
Several of the comedies covered this month feature imported international stars, a recurring motif in Australian cinema in everything from Wake in Fright to Welcome to Woop Woop. I’m not sure either international or Antipodean audiences were clamoring for more Rhys Ifans in romantic lead roles, but his presence in Danny Deckchair brings an appropriate outsider, alien quality to an outsider, alien character.
Danny (Ifans) is a Sydney-based laborer whose dreams of a romantic camping trip are thwarted by his partner’s (Justine Clarke) careerist and extramarital pursuits.He finds escape in the unlikeliest of forms: a prank involving a deckchair and hundreds of balloons ends up lifting him from a social shindig and whisking him away to the small mountain community of Clarence, where he crashes into the backyard and life of local parking inspector Glenda (Miranda Otto).
Danny Deckchair is one of three films directed by Jeff Balsmeyer, whose extensive career as a storyboard artist includes local films Lantana and The Nugget and a huge, eclectic array of American films ranging from Big to Do the Right Thing to The Last of the Mohicans to The Lawnmower Man. That knack for composition and nutting out complex sequences shines through in the film’s signature set piece described above, but the film works best in the scenes devoted to its romantic coupling. After reading this interview it’s hard not to picture all of Rhys Ifans’ characters as prickly and addled under the influence of antibiotics (in much the same way Jessie Eisenberg’s characters all seem a bit Aspergery post-The Social Network), but that weird quality makes him an interesting, unconventional romantic lead. He’s well-matched by Otto, always entertaining (see The Last Days of Chez Nous) and at times radiant here.
Like Dating the Enemy, there’s a touch of magic realism to Danny Deckchair and a propensity towards cliché (in this case: country life is a restorative, healing balm for disenchanted urbanites suffering big city malaise, and introverted country spinsters need a big city guy to rekindle their zest for life). It’s saccharine, but has some rough edges and weird grace notes that make it worthwhile viewing.
Director: Daina Read
Stars:Brendan Cowell, Peter Dinklage, Yvonne Strahovski, Peter Helliar, Megan Gale
First viewing, via DVD
While watching I Love You Too, I was reminded of a funny Joe Queenan essay, ‘You can’t always get what you want’, where the cantankerous critic joked about the saturation of films with the same plots (Honeymoon in Vegas/Indecent Proposal), similar titles (Coming to America/Made in America), or the same actors doing similar things in similar roles (The Firm/A Few Good Men). The same could be said about the shaggy triptych of I Love You Too, I Love You Man, and I Love You Phillip Morris, all featuring goofy protagonists (Brendan Cowell, Paul Rudd, Jim Carrey) who must overcome some form of arrested development (commitment phobia, lack of male friends, compulsive criminality) to be with their long-suffering companions (Yvonne Strahovski, Rashida Jones, Ewan McGregor).
On top of imported international stars (of which this film boasts another, very fine example in Peter Dinklage), another motif among comedies featured this month is television and radio comedians generating their own big screen material. Comedian and former Rove Live co-host Peter Helliar supplies the script and co-stars here, playing the similarly developmentally stunted best friend of Brendan Cowell’s Jim. In a drunken stupor following his inevitable break-up with Strahovski’s Alice, Jim falls asleep in the car of stranger Charlie (Dinklage), who exhibits a far superior knack for words and self-expression. Jim recruits Charlie to help woo Alice back, and in return Charlie recruits Jim to help him deliver a romantic letter to international model Francesca Moretti (Megan Gale).
Like Ifans, Cowell isn’t an intuitive romantic lead, but again this counter-intuitive casting pays off, with Cowell giving Jim a certain schlubby everyman appeal. Strahovski engenders sympathy as his frustrated girlfriend, Helliar and Dinklage provide solid comedic support (fans of Dinklage’s droll delivery on Game of Thrones will enjoy his work here), and future Mad Max: Fury Road alum Gale invests her fantasy figure character with some humanity. While Danny Deckchair and Dating the Enemy were both helmed by writer-directors, directorial duties on Helliar’s frequently funny script went to Daina Read, a television veteran with credits on polished programming like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Offspring, and The Doctor Blake Mysteries (most of which I confess I’ve never seen). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I Love You Too is the best-directed, slickest, but also most impersonal of this week’s offerings. That may sound like a dig, but it’s not: while writer-director-related ‘auteurism’ carries currency and the impersonal is commonly characterized as a deficit, Australian films would benefit from nurturing more talents like Read, whose ability to execute smart, solid commercial material is an asset.
Next week: Down Under Flix air guitars with three music-themed comedies: The Night We Called It a Day (2003), Thunderstruck (2004), and Boytown (2006).