Small town comedy triple review: The Nugget (2002), The Honourable Wally Norman (2003), and Strange Bedfellows (2004)

Cover

The last few comedies covered on Down Under Flix – The Night We Called It a Day, BoyTown, The Wannabes – took place in urban settings and dealt with the lives, longings, and lacerations of showbiz personalities. This week’s featured comedies are set in rural locales and deal with the lives, longings, and lacerations of small town battlers. These depictions of small town life and struggles are less Welcome to Woop Woop, more Danny Deckchair, erring towards the quaint and cute and romanticising small town living while still articulating the anxieties and concerns of regional communities.

Nugget

Director: Bill Bennett

Cast: Eric Bana, Belinda Emmett, Stephen Curry, Dave O’Neil

First viewing, via DVD

I’m not too familiar with director Bill Bennett’s filmography, but based on Kiss or Kill alone – his AFI Award winning 1997 road movie/comedy/romance/thriller/drama – I’d count myself an admirer. Where that film straddles genres and tones on the open road, The Nugget is more contained in genre and setting. The film centres on three close friends, labourers Lotto (Eric Bana), Wookie (Thunderstruck’s Stephen Curry), and Sue (Dave O’Neil), who uncover a gargantuan gold nugget. Their find is both a ticket to better things and a poisoned chalice, leading to tensions between the friends, their wives, and shady locals eager to relieve them of their discovery.

Rags to riches narratives are considered one of the seven basic plots of all storytelling, along with comedy, tragedy, quest, overcoming the monster, and so on. The Nugget is a simple comedic rags-to-riches-to-rags-again (sort of) fable, touching on the temptations of wealth, its transitory gratifications, and the true value of friendships worth their weight in gold. It puts an Australian spin on the dog-eared tale via the “Aussie battler” archetype. In popular local storytelling, these battlers are perennial underdogs struggling to survive, usually due to financial or, in earlier iterations, agricultural woes; in happier iterations they punch above their weight and prosper, whilst in darker iterations they’re driven to extreme measures such as crime (Ned Kelly, one could argue, is a criminal manifestation of this archetype). Lotto, Wookie, and Sue all fit nicely into this mould.

As the ostensible leader of the prosperous prospectors, Eric Bana – then in the thick of his Hollywood ascent, post-Black Hawk Down and pre-Hulk – brings a combination of burgeoning star quality and dry, laconic comic timing to the role of Lotto. The late Belinda Emmett is charming as Lotto’s wife, and the support cast is solid, including Sallyanne Ryan and Karen Pang as Wookie and Sue’s wives and recognisable character actors like Chris Haywood, Vince Colosimo, and Max Cullen rearing their heads in small roles. The Nugget is familiar and largely unremarkable, but like Danny Deckchair and the next film, The Honourable Wally Norman, it manufactures a certain amiable small town charm.

Wally

Director: Ted Emery

Stars: Kevin Harrington, Shaun Micallef, Alan Cassell, Greg Pickhaver

First viewing, via DVD

In 1927, an onscreen goat race served as a major selling point for the Australian comedy The Kid Stakes, adapted from Syd Nicholls’ long-running Fatty Finn newspaper comic strips, with its poster proudly proclaiming “For the first time on the screen A GENUINE GOAT RACE”. Avatar, eat your blue heart out. Seventy-five years later, The Honourable Wally Norman also opens with a goat race, but here it sells the film’s small town cutesy and quaintness. That goat race isn’t the film’s only connection to earlier Australian cinema and culture. Like The Nugget, it’s a film about battlers punching above their weight, with protagonist Wally taking a stand against “The Man” as represented by big business and corrupt government. If there was any doubt concerning the film’s theme and ethos, Jimmy Barnes’ battler anthem ‘Working Class Man’ plays over the film’s end credits (incidentally, 2003, the year of the film’s release, also marked the release of not one but two Ned Kelly films: an ornate historical drama from Gregor Jordan and a comedic take from Abe Forsythe).

The Honourable Wally Norman is set in Given’s Head, where it’s election season and the town’s economic backbone, the local meatworks, is under threat. Through an administrative error, meatworks employee Wally Norman (Kevin Harrington), who suffers a debilitating fear of public speaking but has a proletariat streak a mile wide, is entered as a local candidate in place of the conniving Willy Norman (Alan Cassell), where he’s pitted against the equally conniving and silver-spooned Ken Oat (Shaun Micallef).

Like other recently reviewed comedies of the noughties and thereabouts – I Love You Too, BoyTown, The WannabesThe Honourable Wally Norman’s key creatives are television and comedy veterans. Director Ted Emery directed most episodes of Full Frontal and Fast Forward, a third of Jimeoin, and the entire runs of The Micallef Program and Kath & Kim (as well as Jimeon’s feature film vehicle The Craic and Kath & Kim’s movie spinoff Kath & Kimderella). That’s a formidable comedy CV. Meanwhile, front of house, Kevin Harrington was best known for television’s Seachange, Shaun Micallef was a television comedy staple, and Greg Pickhgaver, better known as H.G. Nelson, was half of Roy and H.G., a popular comedy duo. Harrington’s likeable in a rare leading role, while Micallef exudes privilege and arrogance as his rival.

The film’s modest scale and constraints are evident at times – a rabble of 300 recently redundant meat factory workers looks more like (and is) two dozen recently redundant meat factory workers – but like its protagonist there’s humour and spunk in this unassuming little engine.

Bed

Director: Dean Murphy

Stars: Paul Hogan, Michael Caton, Pete Postlethwaite, Roy Billing, Alan Cassell

First viewing, via DVD

In my review of Dating the Enemy a few weeks ago, I said I was surprised that the film’s high concept hadn’t been poached by Adam Sandler. This week’s final film, Strange Bedfellows, was remade by Sandler, a noted Michael Caton enthusiast (Sandler’s a big fan of The Castle and cast Caton as a mad scientist opposite Rob Schneider in 2001’s The Animal). As if to uphold the antipodean connection, Sandler’s Strange Bedfellows remake, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, would employ the services of Australian Director of Photography Dean Semler (of Dances with Wolves and The Road Warrior fame, who’s actually shot seven (!) Sandler-starring or affiliated films) and friend of Australia Richard Chamberlain (The Last Wave, The Thorn Birds).

Strange Bedfellows stars Paul Hogan and Michael Caton as long-time best friends Vince and Ralph, the former divorced and the latter widowed. In an instance of art foreshadowing life, Hogan’s character runs into significant tax problems. On discovering recent legislation granting gay couples tax rebates, he persuades Ralph to pretend to be his partner on official government paperwork in order to reap some financial relief. However, their case raises some suspicions and an investigator (Pete Postlethwaite) pays a visit to their small town to sniff out any potential subterfuge.

Around 85% of Australia’s population lives in coastal or urban areas, yet Australia’s most successful comedies are not Woody Allen-esque tales of urban sophisticates and their neuroses, but affectionate depictions of loveable larrikins and outcasts: see Muriel Heslop of Muriel’s Wedding, Kenny’s Kenny Smyth, and of course Crocodile Dundee and The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan.  Much of the humour in Strange Bedfellows stems from the comedy of incongruity inherent in seeing Hogan and Caton, two iconic Australian comedy stars and heretofore heteronormative “blokes”, get their gay on and adopt queer wardrobe, mannerisms, and culture. The film’s level of engagement with gay culture is fairly superficial – more Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which debuted on television the year before its release, than Queer as Folk – with Hogan and Caton learning to mince effeminately, watching clips of Rock Hudson and Peter Allen, and going clubbing on Oxford Street in Sydney (where Danny Deckchair entertains a Sydney bad/country good binary, Strange Bedfellows sets up a Sydney gay/country straight one). Yet while the film leans on easy gags and stereotypes, it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that it still mostly works. With its premise the film could easily have veered towards homophobic gay panic or a condescending tone, but Strange Bedfellows is mostly good-humoured and non-reactionary about its subject: the colourful country coots like the colourful denizens of Oxford Street, and vice versa.

Hogan and Caton have great comedic chemistry, and it’s a shame the film didn’t make more of a dent (though it’s the only 2004 release to crack the list of Australia’s biggest box office successes, at no. 63), as I’d welcome more team-ups of these actors. However, Hogan and director Dean Murphy would team up twice more, including one of next week’s films, Charlie & Boots.

Next time: Our month (actually now two months) focusing on Australian comedies of the noughties and thereabouts wraps with Under the Radar, Charlie & Boots, and A Few Best Men.

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

1 thought on “Small town comedy triple review: The Nugget (2002), The Honourable Wally Norman (2003), and Strange Bedfellows (2004)”

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