This week brings one last look at Australian comedies from the noughties, no doubt to some readers’ reflief and other readers’ chagrin. Previous entries grouped films according to theme – romantic comedies, music-centred comedies, small town comedies, with The Wannabes straddling the former two categories – but this week spotlights the three best films (in my opinion anyway) of the series: a sly little comedic thriller, a road movie dramedy headlined by two iconic Australian comedy stars, and a polished mainstream confection.
Director: Evan Clarry
Stars: Nathan Phillips, Clayton Watson, Steady Eddy, Chloe Maxwell
First viewing, via DVD
Twentysomething Brandon (Nathan Phillips) is an immature surfing champion forced into community service after a run-in with the law. Looking for a way to shirk his duties at a home for the disabled and attend a surf competition, he proposes taking Adrian (Clayton Watson), who suffers a memory loss condition, on an excursion to the beach. On their trip – saddled with Trevor (Steady Eddy) who has cerebral palsy and hitchhiker Jo (Chloe Maxwell) who they pick up along the way – they stumble across some criminal activity and end up fending for their lives.
While Under the Radar’s poster (scroll up) suggests breezy comedic hijinks, the film opens like a straight thriller. Kicking off in media res, Adrian is pursued by criminals, captured, bound and threatened, with Brandon dragged into the mix shortly thereafter. From here, the film flashes back and subsequently alternates between prior events, played for laughs, and current events, with the characters under considerable duress. Where the thriller elements in some comedies feel shoehorned in or superficial (see, for example, The Wannabes or Three Men and a Baby), the approach adopted here adds grit and tension to the story and some sense of danger and stakes, which the comedy flashbacks then serve to decompress. The presence of Phillips, star of both Wolf Creek and Dying Breed, only heightens the sense that everything could go terribly, violently wrong.
Phillips has starred in some bad films, particularly some bad comedies (Take Away is a tough sit, and by all accounts You and Your Stupid Mate is abominable) but he’s done good work in good films (Australian Rules, Wolf Creek, Balibo) and is a solid lead here. Maxwell is also good and received a Best Actress AFI nomination for her role, a rarity for this sort of film (though admittedly it was a pretty slim year at the AFI Awards). But the standouts are Watson, conveying both resilience and vulnerability as the endangered Adrian, and comedian Steady Eddie, who cuts into the part and through his real-life cerebral palsy with sardonic mirth. Whilst Under the Radar is slighter than this week’s other featured films and not necessarily built to last, it’s a comedy with refreshing grit and for its runtime is engaging, at times gripping viewing.
Director: Dean Murphy
Stars: Paul Hogan, Shane Jacobson
First viewing, via DVD
Our last batch of reviews spotlighted 2004’s Strange Bedfellows, in which iconic Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan teamed onscreen with The Castle’s Michael Caton. Charlie & Boots teams Hogan with another popular Australian comedy star, Kenny’s Shane Jacobson, as well as reuniting him with Strange Bedfellows writer-director Dean Murphy and co-writer Stewart Faichney. Whilst teaming Crocodile Dundee with Kenny is the sort of high concept that may cause some viewers to break out in hives, to this viewer’s eyes it is, like Hogan and Caton, a sound pairing and one I’d welcome more of.
Hogan plays Charlie, recently widowed and withdrawn from the world. Jacobson plays his son Boots, with whom he has a complicated relationship. In an effort to lift his father’s morose spirits, Boots takes Charlie on a road trip from Warrnambool, Victoria to Cape York, Queensland. For non-Australian readers, that’s from the bottom end of Australia to the top end, a journey of over 4,100 kilometres.
The road movie is one of those resilient, dog-eared sub-genres, and with good reason. It transports audiences to new and distant places, but there’s also something comforting and reassuring about its familiar narrative beats, with characters in moving vehicles hitting the road, growing as individuals, forging or rekindling meaningful relationships, and so on. The genre is an American specialty (see It Happened One Night, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Rain Man, Thelma & Louise, to name just a few) and Australia, though under-represented in contrast, also affords filmmakers vast distances and impressive landscapes to use as their canvas. Some notable Australian road movies have already been covered on Down Under Flix – see Beneath Clouds and Bondi Tsunami – and other noteworthy entries in Australia’s road movie output include dramas like Last Cab to Darwin, Spider and Rose and Backroads, comedies such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Doing Time for Patsy Cline, and thrillers like the delightful Roadgames.
Charlie & Boots is a nice addition to that canon. While it charms as a travelogue, its core ingredient is the chemistry between Hogan and Jacobson, who forego their typically broader comic personas and pitch their characters at a lower key, finding comedy and pathos in gentler human exchanges. I was particularly impressed by Hogan, portraying a regular melancholic guy rather than working to his usual larrikin persona and convincingly conveying Charlie’s grief and mourning. Charlie & Boots ultimately errs towards convention and doesn’t break from its road movie formula, but it’s a beautifully played example of formula filmmaking delivering the goods.
Director: Stephan Elliot
Stars: Xavier Samuel, Kris Marshall, Kevin Bishop, Tim Draxl, Laura Brent, Olivia Newton-John, Rebel Wilson, Steve Le Marquand
First viewing, via DVD
A Few Best Men is another terrific example of formula filmmaking that works. But where Charlie & Boots is a soothing chamomile tea of a film, A Few Best Men is a six-pack of Jolt Cola, with all the sugar and twice the caffeine. Londoner David (Xavier Samuel) meets and falls in love with Australian Mia (Laura Brent) over the course of 10 days at an island paradise. David returns to a wet, miserable England not unlike the one depicted in Bruce Beresford’s Barry McKenzie films 40 years earlier, and tells his best friends – swaggering confidante Tom (Kris Marshall), neurotic Graham (Kevin Bishop) and sad sack Luke (Tim Draxl) – that he’s engaged to be married. The quartet fly to Australia for the wedding, to be held at Mia’s family’s home in the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales. Following a wild bucks’ night, disaster upon disaster ensues on David and Mia’s big day.
This review coincides with the theatrical release of A Few Best Men’s sequel, A Few Less Men, which has been on the receiving end of a critical bludgeoning, with its Rotten Tomatoes score currently sitting at 17%. Having said that, the original doesn’t rank any better on the Tomatometer, sitting a notch below at 16% (see Rotten Tomatoes). While I can’t speak for the sequel (which I’m yet to see), in the case of A Few Best Men there’s a clear disjunction between critics and filmgoers. Of the thirteen comedies covered in this month-plus series, A Few Best Men was the most commercially successful, and ranks 57th on the list of the 100 most successful Australian films (Strange Bedfellows, Charlie & Boots, and BoyTown also crack the list at numbers 63, 75, and 88 respectively). The fact that the film warranted a sequel suggests there’s an audience that dug it: whilst Hollywood routinely produces sequels to films nobody was particularly crazy about in the first instance – see last year’s Inferno and The Hunstman: Winter’s War and the forthcoming Escape Plan 2: Hades – in Australia a film typically has to be held in high affection to score a follow-up (whether that follow-up lives up to its predecessor, or audiences repay the effort with enthusiasm, is another story).
Any fandom for A Few Best Men is well-deserved. While it won’t be for all tastes or to all comedic mileages, I found the film a consistently funny, occasionally hilarious piece of populist product, expertly helmed by Stephan Elliot, director of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Welcome to Woop Woop, the film that launched Down Under Flix. Whilst lacking those films’ thematic meat and sophistication – Priscilla was sly and subversive in its cultural and gender politics, while Woop Woop both venerated and eviscerated national identity – A Few Best Men shares their vulgar spirit, zippy soundtracks (including co-star Olivia Newton-John handling the film’s closing song), great scenery (the Blue Mountain vistas look suitably imposing onscreen and convey Mia’s family’s affluence), and sugar high sensibility. It also showcases, if further proof were needed, that Elliot is ace at timing and landing a joke. At times A Few Best Men feels like a greatest hits package of modern mainstream comedy, taking and repackaging ingredients from other successful contemporary comedies like The Hangover, Meet the Parents, The Wedding Crashers, and writer Dean Craig’s own Death at a Funeral, but the film never pauses long enough for a feeling of derivativeness to creep in. Craig is arguably the film’s other secret weapon alongside Elliot: like Death at a Funeral, A Few Best Men sets up and executes gags and gasp-out-loud moments at a swift and steady clip, each rooted firmly in characterisation.
Those characters may test some viewers: they’re an exasperating assortment and their own biggest obstacles, but the actors are uniformly committed and energetic. While Xavier Samuel had the misfortune of being a featured player in the Twilight saga, he’s done solid work in local genre fare like Bait and The Loved Ones and is a good comic everyman, overcoming the fact his character teeters permanently on the verge of judgmental hysteria. Kris Marshall, meanwhile, overcomes the fact his character is a borderline sociopath and makes for an affable worst best man. Kevin Bishop (formerly Jim Hawkins in Muppet Treasure Island, for all you fellow Muppeteers) and Trim Draxl (of Swimming Upstream) round out the quartet nicely, and Laura Brent is likeable as the besieged bride. In addition, Olivia Newton-John, Rebel Wilson, and Steve Le Marquand provide robust support as Mia’s increasingly intoxicated mother, Mia’s sister, and a local drug dealer with abandonment issues respectively. Suffice to say, if you ever wanted to see Sandy from Grease being potty-mouthed and under the influence, A Few Best Men is for you.
On the DVD’s special features, Elliot states that he “was just in the mood for a laugh” following work on a period film (Easy Virtue) and in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. A Few Best Men delivers on that promise: it’s funny, slick, mainstream comedic confectionery, thematically lightweight but fattening in other ways.
In the first post of this month-plus series of comedy reviews, I painted Australian comedies of the noughties in a somewhat disparaging light. I noted that the major Australian comedies of the 1970s, like the Alvin Purple and Barry McKenzie films, rejoiced in their newly fangled opportunity to present Australian identities on film and embraced adult material thanks to the liberal attitudes of the time; that the major Australian comedies of the 1980s, like Crocodile Dundee and Young Einstein, commodified that identity for global audiences; that the major Australian comedies of the 1990s gave voice and expression to misfits and outcasts and everyday suburbanites; and that the comedies of the 2000s, on first glance, possessed no equivalent holistic identity of their own. Following a month-plus of reviews spanning thirteen films from the period (and thereabouts) my new take on local comedies of the noughties and their thematic and cultural import is as follows:
To clarify: I generally enjoyed these films, some more than expected. The ones I didn’t care for, like The Wannabes, I can’t really muster up the energy to actively hate. My biggest criticism across the thirteen flicks would be a general lack of ambition and originality; nobody’s really experimenting or being bold or swinging for the fences. And, like I said, there doesn’t seem to be any collective vision or uniform thesis underpinning this assortment of titles.
In my meagre defence, we’re perhaps still too close to the decade to elucidate these comedies’ collective import. Certainly, thirteen films do not paint the whole portrait: key pieces of the puzzle may reside elsewhere, perhaps in films like Kenny or Kath & Kimderella that were much more lucrative financially, or films like Let’s Get Skase or You Can’t Stop the Murders that have largely faded from the cultural consciousness. Or maybe there’s no holistic identity to be elucidated across these texts, a distinct possibility that’s perfectly fine and somewhat symptomatic of an increasingly fragmented popular culture with increasingly varied modes of consumption and expression and identity.
However, these films do share some connective tissue, with recurring cast members and casting patterns across the thirteen flicks. Several actors appear more than once, such as Paul Hogan (Strange Bedfellows, Charlie & Boots), Stephen Curry (Thunderstruck, The Nugget), Kestie Morassi (Thunderstruck, Charlie & Boots), Roy Billing (Thunderstruck, Strange Bedfellows, Charlie & Boots), Alan Cassell (Wally Norman, Strange Bedfellows), and Ryan Johnson (Thunderstruck, The Wannabes). Imported actors are also commonplace: see Dennis Hopper, Melanie Griffith, and David Hemmings (The Night We Called It a Day), Rhys Ifans (Danny Deckchair), the delightful Peter Dinklage (I Love You Too), and Pete Postlethwaite (Strange Bedfellows). These comedy casts are rounded out by TV, radio, and stand-up comedy personalities – some involved in generating the material (BoyTown’s Mick Molloy, I Love You Too’s Peter Helliar) and others simply starring (BoyTown’s Glenn Robbins, Under the Radar’s Steady Eddie, Wally Norman’s Shaun Micallef and Greg Pickhaver, to name a few) – and garnished with Home & Away alumni, including the late Belinda Emmett (The Nugget), Isla Fisher (The Wannabes), Anthony Phelan (Danny Deckchair), and Cinis again (A Few Best Men).
In addition, these thirteen films do have a number of recurring themes and motifs. Small towns were the stomping grounds of The Honourable Wally Norman, Strange Bedfellows, The Nugget, and Danny Deckchair, while regional politics drove the plot of Wally Norman and surfaced in subplots in Danny Deckchair and A Few Best Men (with real-life politicians Mike Rann and Alan Cinis showing up in small roles in Wally Norman and A Few Best Men respectively). Mateship and male camaraderie are staples of Australian cinema, and those themes could be found across BoyTown, Thunderstruck, I Love You Too, A Few Best Men, The Nugget, and Strange Bedfellows, to name the most overt examples. In particular, mates holding each other back, falling in and out of each other’s favour, experiencing tensions due to the women in their lives, and combinations of these tropes appear frequently (unfortunately, in many of these comedies women are relegated to the roles of wives and girlfriends and mothers and potential love interests; the bulk of these thirteen films probably wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test). Battlers also feature prominently – see Danny Deckchair, The Nugget, Wally Norman, Strange Bedfellows – and fish out of water scenarios are also commonplace: Londoners in Australia (A Few Best Men), city folk in country towns (Danny Deckchair), straight men pretending to be gay (Strange Bedfellows), men and women inhabiting each other’s bodies (Dating the Enemy), small-time criminals catapulted to fame as children’s entertainers (The Wannabes), Frank Sinatra in Australia (The Night We Called It a Day), and so on. Perhaps the grand unifying theme of these thirteen films is that white Australian men are confused and don’t know what to do with themselves, but because they’re white Australian men they still get to headline all the films. Maybe Fight Club was right. In retrospect, it is quite shocking how thoroughly white and thoroughly masculine these films and their preoccupations are…
Like I said, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Next week: Down Under Flix goes in like Flynn and reviews Errol Flynn’s film debut, In the Wake of the Bounty (1933)