Director: Nick Giannopoulos
Stars: Nick Giannopoulos, Isla Fisher, Russell Dykstra, Felix Williamson, Chantal Contouri, Costas Kilias, Ryan Johnson, Lena Cruz
First viewing, via DVD
Down Under Flix’s month-long focus on comedy continues this week with a look at Nick Giannopoulos’s 2003 directorial debut The Wannabes. Danny (Giannopoulos) is the ultimate theatre kid—singer, dancer, actor—bereft of both humility and talent. He gets a job training a quartet of thugs to be children’s entertainers, little knowing their act is a cover for a heist. While the crime gets botched, the crew finds success as a Wiggles-esque group called The Wannabes. Following February’s successful tag team review of Ghosts … of the Civil Dead, I’m joined below by Kathryn White, novelist and blogger at Kathryn’s Inbox.
Ben: Australian comedy stars generally have short cinematic tenures as marquee names, usually amounting to a few films apiece: see, for example, Yahoo Serious (Young Einstein, Reckless Kelly, Mr Accident), Mick Molloy (Crackerjack, Bad Eggs, last week’s BoyTown), and director-star of this week’s film, Nick Giannopoulos (The Wog Boy, The Wannabes, Wog Boy 2: The Kings of Mykonos). A big reason for this is the time that elapses between films. When a comedy star hits big or shows promise to hit big in America, the Hollywood machine is already in place to help sustain that momentum. After Ace Ventura: Pet Detective made Jim Carrey a household name, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber followed in quick succession. Whatever you think of Carrey and those films, that’s an incredible and decisive one-two-three punch. In contrast, because much of their material is self-generated and because there isn’t really that same infrastructure in place to support and manufacture new content, when a new comedy star is birthed in an Australian film it can be a few years before the next film surfaces to cash in on their popularity. By that time, because there hasn’t been a steady succession of new gags and jokes to stimulate their comedic personas, their popularity has waned and the original smash hit has grown stale from over-exposure. Imagine if three years passed between Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Carrey’s next film: there are only so many times you can watch this before it gets old and you go looking elsewhere for giggles.
The Wannabes came out in 2003, four years after Giannopoulos’ first cinematic success with The Wog Boy. Giannopoulos had enjoyed success on stage and the small screen (in the sitcom Acropolis Now) and The Wog Boy exported his brand of ethnic Australian comedy to the big screen with lucrative results. Released in 2000, the film was a commercial hit, earning close to $11.5 million dollars at the local box office, making it the second most successful Australian film released that year (behind The Dish and ahead of Looking for Alibrandi and Chopper) and landing it in the 25 highest-earning Australian films of all time (current post: 24). In contrast, The Wannabes grossed just over $1.2 million dollars at the box office, around a tenth of The Wog Boy’s commercial haul, which suggests that all the people that flocked to and dug The Wog Boy had tired of it over repeat viewings in subsequent years (or perhaps grown weary of Giannopoulos boasting about its success and shilling for commercials, both of which he did an awful lot in The Wog Boy’s aftermath).
This was my first viewing of The Wannabes, but you’ve seen it before and have an interesting history with the film, don’t you?
Kathryn: The Wannabes was a smash hit for me, literally. I was in the DVD section of a popular department store, and for one reason or another, I picked up a copy of the DVD. At that precise moment, the entire stand that contained copies of The Wannabes somehow managed to fall apart, and copies of the DVD went everywhere. Every single person in the store (or so it seemed) turned and looked at me, which is an utterly excruciating experience for me—at that age, I was painfully shy and had no idea what to do. Anyway, I was so embarrassed that I more or less felt bound to buy a copy. Still, there must be some magic in a DVD copy of The Wannabes—while I was sorting out the purchase of the DVD, I missed the bus that I had intended to catch home. That particular bus crashed and some of the passengers ended up with serious injuries. So, comparatively, I came out of it about $19 poorer and the owner of a DVD that had suffered some pretty scathing reviews, but at least I didn’t end up in a road accident.
My family believe none of this by the way—they think it was some shithouse excuse that I came up with to justify squandering my money on a lowbrow comedy that stars Isla Fisher—who was one of my (many) teenage crushes, and someone who it wasn’t exactly cool to like in 2003 (I thought she was awesome; I just had trouble finding anyone who agreed with me).
When The Wannabes was released, Isla Fisher was best known in Australia for playing wild-child-turned-budding-author Shannon Reed on Home and Away, and had been slapped with the usual stigma that goes with being an ex-soap star (Hollywood was still on the horizon). Meanwhile, Nick Giannopoulos was a household name in Australia that had become somewhat tired and over-exposed. From there, the rest of the cast were actors that seemed to pop up in everything and anything made in Australia (Chantal Contouri, Costas Kilias) or who were (at that point) not big enough names to draw in an audience on their own merit (Ryan Johnson). The former is a common complaint about Australian film and television. A country with a (comparatively) small film and television industry will inevitably have a small pool of actors to choose from, which can lead to those actors becoming over-exposed and typecast. The Wannabes also had another tough battle on its hands: 2003 was one of the worst performing years for Australian film at the box office. Even Ned Kelly, the top grossing Australian film for 2003, made $8 million at the box office, while Japanese Story made half of that. Getting’ Square, which was the fifth highest grossing Australian film of 2003, barely made $2 million at the local box office. Meanwhile, there were a number of commercially successful films being imported from overseas: Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix Reloaded. This film never had a chance, in my opinion.
That said, onto the movie itself. Now that you’ve finally viewed The Wannabes, what are your thoughts Ben?
Ben: It’s fine. Average, but by no means the comedic abyss I’d been led to expect. Lest it sound like I’m placing the blame for the film’s mediocre box office entirely on apathetic audiences, it should be stressed that it generally helps the cause when the film itself is strong. While local audiences often do very fine Australian films a disservice by not turning up to see them, they’re also pretty savvy about sniffing out damaged goods. Had The Wannabes been a minor gem like The Wog Boy, I’ve no doubt it would have punched through the wall of audience apathy and found a wider audience through positive word of mouth, or at least built itself a cult afterlife. As it stands, The Wannabes is fairly underwhelming.
The film marked a departure for Giannopoulos from his ethnic “Wog”-themed comedy; as he notes in the DVD’s special features, after doing that comedy for fifteen years he felt “It was time to put it to rest and move on”. To his credit, Giannopoulos gives it his all onscreen and is unafraid to look like a doofus. The rest of the ensemble similarly rise to the occasion: Fisher’s a nice, laconic romantic interest; Russell Dykstra, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Costas Kilias, and Ryan Johnson (from last week’s Thunderstruck) are mildly threatening and enjoyably imbecilic as the low-rent criminals; Felix Williamson follows up his fun turn as a clueless American gangster in Dirty Deeds as a similarly clueless American entertainer; and Lena Cruz is a scenery-chewing whirling dervish as a money-hungry bride.
Whilst I didn’t find The Wannabes consistently funny, it has its moments, and I would never say a comedy has to be a laugh riot to be deemed a success. Sometimes, chemistry between actors or pulling off a certain style or attitude will carry a film: I didn’t find Dad and Dave: On Our Selection or Beware of Greeks Bearing Guns particularly funny, but they were likable and personable films. The Wannabes strives for a similar likability, but I think less likable would have been the better tone to pursue. There’s a certain base appeal to seeing children’s entertainers in brightly-coloured suits swearing and beating each other up. Throw in a giant marsupial costume, and it gets even better. The scenes where the film taps into that base appeal are the most amusing, and it feels like the film could have gone even darker comedically, milking that incongruity between goofy children’s entertainment and small-time criminal activity for all the black comedy it’s worth (think Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy, released the previous year). As it stands, the film feels tonally tentative, as though Giannopoulos, working outside his comfort zone, wasn’t completely willing to commit to that sort of direction.
How’d you find the film, both post-accident and on revisiting it?
Kathryn: It got a few laughs out of me—there is something funny about seeing a group of crooks posing as children’s entertainers. Like any Aussie comedy, there are a few digs at things that are familiar to us—we see Hammer on the front cover of Women’s Day, the group appear on Rove and Bert Newton hosting an award night. Those are things that are (or at least were) a familiar part of Australian culture and there’s something enjoyable about seeing those things sent up. And The Wannabes themselves share at least one or two parallels with The Wiggles.
That said, the film lacks something—I think they could have gone either way, made the comedy even darker and pushed for an MA rating, or, conversely, aimed for a PG rating by cutting back on the swearing and adding a few double entendres in lieu of the sexual references, and either would have made a better film. As it is, The Wannabes feels like it’s stuck somewhere in the middle, with little idea of who its target audience is. Ultimately, it’s the kind of movie that gets a 2 & ½ star rating for me. It’s funny, but it is lacking in places.
Ben: The popular culture references you mention above – Rove Live and Bert Newton and The Wiggles by way of Paul Jennings – do give the film a nostalgic time stamp; I’d also add Costas Kilias’ characters affection for Kylie Minogue and the Red Faces-style talent contest that opens the film. But yeah, it’s a film that’s tonally torn that would have benefited from embracing a harder line of comedy or, as you suggest, a lighter touch. The noughties was a decade of many underwhelming local comedies, and while The Wannabes isn’t as deadly as something like You and Your Stupid Mate or as dreary as something like Takeaway or Russian Doll, it never hits the upper tier.
Thanks again to Kathryn White for chiming in with her thoughts on The Wannabes. You can read Kathryn’s daily musings over at Kathryn’s Inbox. In addition, Kathryn is the author of 10 books, including Behind the Scenes, about a young actress who lands a role on her dream television soap opera. Check out her published fiction over at Goodreads.
Up next: Another triple round of noughties comedy reviews, this time of small-town comedies The Nugget (2002), The Honourable Wally Norman (2003), and Strange Bedfellows (2004).