Unpopular Populism, or The Decline and Fall of the Little Aussie Battler: Notes on Australian Film Comedy in 2003 Jake Wilson December 2003 Australian Contemporary Cinema Issue 29 Journalism about the Australian film industry goes in cycles, and the pundits who most loudly applaud our Oscar achievements in March can reliably be heard in October predicting the imminent death of the local industry. Still, without joining the current chorus of doomsayers, it’s easy to imagine that right now a number of local producers must be scratching their heads. Recent financing decisions suggest that the success of relatively cheap, populist comedies like The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997) and The Wogboy (Alexei Vellis, 2000) inspired a widespread faith in Australian TV comedians as writers, directors and stars. Outwardly, this makes a lot of sense: TV programs like Kath and Kim and Roy and H.G.’s various vehicles continue to top the ratings, and where listless Australian genre films such as Russian Doll (Stavros Andonis Efthymiou, 2001) and The Hard Word (Scott Hocking, 2002) seem disconnected from any actual or potential public, stand-up comedy currently ranks with popular music as a thriving local artform that depends first and foremost on rapport with audiences. Yet nearly all of this year’s Australian comedies have flopped (deservingly, by and large) both at the box office and with critics. What went wrong? Several explanations suggest themselves. To begin with, it’s probably true that repeated formulae rarely work in a market where there’s only room for one or two hits in a particular genre each year. Also, feature-length narrative cinema poses a special challenge for comedians, however expert and well-loved; a barrier is automatically imposed between performer and audience, and conventional narrative structure leaves little room for sudden anarchic whims. While screen clowns from the Marx Brothers to Jim Carrey have overcome these problems through sheer force of personality, the majority of Australian comedians work in a relatively low-key, “observational” style, and seem more comfortable lingering on the sidelines of a narrative than propelling it forward or tearing it to shreds. It’s hard not to feel that the Australian talent for this kind of comedy is underwritten by a mild national neurosis, a distrust of the big gestures common to Hollywood and high art. Most of the skill of comics like Dave O’Neil or Judith Lucy lies in persuading the audience that what they do takes no special talent: as O’Neil tells it, he’s just what he appears, “a friendly, kind of amiable, suburban, half-bogan half-yuppie kind of guy. That’s it. That’s all there is” (1). That’s the template, anyway: the likeable man or woman from next door, overweight or a bit of a drinker, standing in front of a microphone and whinging, not too seriously, about the minor woes of ordinary life. Granting that this “ordinariness” is a refined form of showbiz illusion, the dilemma remains: starring successfully in a movie means becoming a movie star, and smaller-than-life self-depreciation is rarely a winning posture on the big screen. A recurring, symptomatic feature of recent Australian comedies is the mock-heroic fantasy sequence: the characters move in slow motion towards the camera, accompanied by an appropriate theme song, as if starring in Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981) or an action extravaganza by John Woo. Real cinema, in other words, which happens somewhere else: not here. Past commentators have noted the central place occupied by the “ugly and ordinary” in Australian cinema (2) and certainly the likes of O’Neil and Mick Molloy belong to a tradition stretching back to The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919). As this suggests, an attachment to homeliness needn’t be a problem in all contexts, but too often an air of defensive mediocrity surrounds the films themselves, as if the performers were afraid to put their laidback images in jeopardy by being caught trying anything too ambitious. Of course a rigorously maintained slackness has its own appeal: the word “shambling”, which clings to Molloy like a Homeric epithet, was an accurate description of the enjoyable wreck of his short-lived tonight show, featuring a midget offsider (“Mini-Mick”) and a one-off segment with the host urinating on the set. But there’s little of this troublemaking in films like Molloy’s Crackerjack (Paul Moloney, 2002) and Take Away (Marc Gracie, 2003), co-written by O’Neil: both gesture sleepily towards sympathy with the underdog, but the potshots at shonky entrepreneurs and silver-tail politicians are so predictable it’s as if we’re meant to be charmed by artistic laziness in itself. The broader problem is one of credibility – the difficulty of grounding “feelgood” formulae in a believable setting while living up to the modern commercial obligations to keep the characters likeable and end every dialogue exchange with a gag. For all their trademark smarm, Rob Sitch and his fellow Working Dogs hit on a winning formula with The Castle, linking “timeless” archetypes out of Dad and Dave with very precise contemporary references to Hey Hey It’s Saturday, hairdresser training courses and Aboriginal land rights. But subsequent Oz comedies have had less success in reconciling old and new myths: The Honourable Wally Norman (Ted Emery, 2003) aims reflex sarcasm at cliches of Australiana – one of the satirical targets is the host of something called The G’Day Show – while asking us to have faith in the marsupial decency of a dim rural meatworker (condescendingly played by Kevin Harrington). Similar uncertainties are visible in the clash between bush yarn-spinning and urban comedy stylings in The Nugget (Bill Bennett, 2002) and Abe Forsyth’s game but unsuccessful reimagining of Australian history for the South Park generation in Ned (2003). In nearly all these cases, a nostalgia for personal and cultural traditions in whatever residual form (bowling clubs, family-owned businesses, bushranging legends) hints at a not unsympathetic conservatism beneath the nominal larrikin irreverence. Yet these traditions now seem accessible only through pop culture stereotypes – and plainly, the fenced-off cosiness of Malcolm (Nadia Tass, 1986) or Spotswood (Mark Joffe, 1992) is no longer plausible either as a generic model for Australian cinema or a version of real life. Paradoxically, a more direct route to representing contemporary reality might be through straight burlesque, even if the tedium of real-life wage slavery bears little relation to the testosterone-fuelled Road Runner cartoon that is Fat Pizza (Paul Fenech, 2003). While writer-director-star Fenech rarely manages to develop a scene for more than 30 seconds or film a woman without jamming the camera into her cleavage, he can’t be accused of lacking energy, and his parodies of various contemporary urban tribes are typically founded on sharp first-hand observation. For all the film’s chauvinism and flaunted political incorrectness, the racially impartial mockery is refreshingly free of sentimentality about white male “battlers”, while a disastrous encounter between the pedal-to-the-metal “wog” heroes and a crowd of middle-class Anglo-Saxon hippies suggests that Pauly, Sleek the Elite and company would make short work of Ben Lee’s fey nerd-dandy in Tony McNamara’s toothless arthouse satire The Rage in Placid Lake (2003). While Fat Pizza probably has the most actual laughs, stylistically it’s Bad Eggs (Tony Martin, 2003) that stands out from the pack of recent Australian comedies, marking its first-time writer-director as a filmmaking talent to watch. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s followed Martin’s career on TV and radio, where it’s not just his boffin appearance that’s earned him the reputation as a comedy brain: unusually, he combines a dedication to cheerful vulgarity – one of the compilations of his radio work with Molloy was characteristically titled Poop Chute – with a perfectionist streak and a wide-ranging practical knowledge of film history (3). Though Bad Eggs stars Molloy and his fellow comedian Bob Franklin as a pair of cops who, inevitably, go up against the system, it’s only loosely identifiable as an underdog comedy in the vein of The Castle. In an interview during production, Martin pointed instead to the influence of 1980s “comedy thrillers” such as Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984) and Fletch (Michael Ritchie, 1985), adding that while the film was a comedy, he was encouraging the cast to “play it really straight” (4). Some of that “straightness” is apparent in the finished film, which in contrast to the televisual brightness of Crackerjack or Takeaway certainly looks like a thriller. (To be harsh, at times it looks and moves like one of those underpopulated Australian thrillers – such as The Bank [Robert Connelly, 2001] – where events occur at widely spaced intervals in a blue-tinged void.) However, Bad Eggs combines thrills and comedy in a rather different way from the Hollywood films cited by Martin: far from being tricksters like Fletch or Beverly Hills‘ Axel Foley, the main characters are vaguely buffoonish ordinary blokes who tend to respond passively to situations rather than taking control. At least half of the film’s humour arises from these small-scale responses – throwaway verbal and behavioural oddities that can’t always be called jokes. Martin is tickled by words and phrases for their own sake, and a distinct writing voice is always audible behind Molloy’s colloquialisms (“Fuck me rigid!” “He’s fair up the clack!”) and Franklin’s pedantic waffle (“We’re under attack by mischievous tykes!”). The alternation of gunplay and wordplay might suggest a kinship with Tarentino and Guy Ritchie, but Martin’s ear is his own, and the effect is more idly self-amused than shocking or excessive. Unfortunately, this means that Bad Eggs suffers from many of the same problems as the other Australian comedies discussed above: a wilful disregard for dramatic logic undermines any desire the film might have to be taken seriously as a thriller, while Molloy and Franklin function more as comedians playing “themselves” than as plausible fictional characters. Molloy does a toned-down version of his usual blokey schtick, but still seems to be parodying his own lack of acting subtlety, self-consciously an amateur giving it a burl; Franklin, an eternal second banana, is facetiously closed in on himself and mournful, like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. Both seem confined in a bubble where events, however dramatic, barely impinge on their real activities – Molloy making leering sex references, or Franklin fiddling with a pen. Significantly, we’re given little background information on either character (a flashback to the start of Molloy’s career is mainly an excuse for jokes about ’80s haircuts) and their unfailing sang froid is rarely justified within the fiction; it’s as if their real-life status as minor celebrities allowed them to saunter through the narrative, entering and leaving at their own convenience (5). It’s when the outside world physically imposes itself on the heroes, temporarily forcing them out of their solipsism, that Martin succeeds in making the principles of comedy and suspense (both dependent on the build-up and release of tension) work in tandem rather than at cross purposes. Indeed, the clearest sign of his filmmaking intelligence is the neat fit between his mystery plot – the heroes gradually piecing together the details of a corruption scandal – and the comic technique of gradual revelation used to structure individual scenes (which corresponds with Noël Carroll’s definition of the sight gag as a perceptual shift forcing us to revise our understanding of what we’ve been shown (6)). This doesn’t always mean we discover new information along with the heroes: often we’re either one step ahead of them or one step behind. One of Martin’s favourite stylistic figures is the static two-shot suddenly disrupted from an unexpected direction: Molloy and Franklin cruising in their police car when a water bomb splatters across their windscreen, or Molloy in the midst of consoling a woman he’s interviewing before pushing open the door behind him to reveal a room engulfed in flame (a gag telegraphed some moments earlier, then allowed to escalate offscreen). Even more, he likes to pan across empty space to reveal an object or character whose presence opens up new possibilities within a scene – literally a form of lateral thinking. These principles of action (an enclosed space breached from outside) and revelation (gradually uncovering an event’s true significance) come together in the inspired opening sequence, mounted with a “classical” care and precision worthy of Blake Edwards. Over the opening credits, we see a middle-aged man sitting in a parked car, examining some black-and-white photos and sipping a glass of whisky; these details are established carefully, one after another, before Martin pans to an exhaust pipe inside the car to let us know that we’re witnessing an attempt at suicide. As the man topples forward, the handbrake slips off, and the car slides out of the garage and down the street towards the local shopping centre; the camera records its trajectory impassively in a series of wide shots taken from outside the car, as if acknowledging that the dead man has no further role to play in the chain of events he’s triggered. A shot of a Tai Chi class in a local park, oblivious to the runaway vehicle as it sails past them, is a grace note which testifies to Martin’s wit and sense of rhythm – the comic tranquillity building our anticipation of the mayhem which does, indeed, ensue. Martin’s attention to detail in set-pieces like this is so impressive it’s frustrating that Bad Eggs as a whole doesn’t match this level of achievement. For the moment, he’s much more engaged with the techniques of filmmaking than with themes or ideas, and his storytelling is almost too careful for its own good – too many scenes sag with the expository weight of a plot that never becomes either believable or interesting in itself. If the film has an emotional centre, it’s in the relationship between Molloy’s character and Judith Lucy as his ex-girlfriend: the warmth between the pair feels authentic, and Lucy’s usual whining performance style is so monotonous it’s a startling pleasure to see her express any feeling beyond sarcastic disenchantment. At the end of the film, after the crime plot is resolved, we see the pair celebrating in their apartment by cracking open a bottle of champagne and dancing to a Sinatra recording; as the song ends, Martin pans across to the city skyline, leaving them to their idyll. Once again, this epilogue feels deliberately gratuitous, as if winking at the audience from inside the fiction; Molloy’s shameless hamming as he pops the champagne cork suggests his delight in masquerading as a glamorous movie star. But as Lucy looks back at him with a similar, half-disbelieving delight, for a few moments at least the illusion of glamour takes hold. Despite or because of their mutual self-mockery, we’re able to accept these dags as real lovers – and Bad Eggs as a real movie at last. Endnotes Interview with Dave O’Neil, The Age A3, October 4 2003, p. 2. Bill Routt, “Me Cobber, Caliban: Stephano’s Story and Resistance to Empire in Early Australian Film” in Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, ed. Deb Verhoeven, Damned Publishing, Melbourne, 1999. Martin’s Late Show sketch “Warren Perso: The Last Aussie Auteur” – now appended to the Bad Eggs DVD – remains one of the sharpest critiques of 1970s Australian filmmaking in any medium. Amanda Brotchie, “On Set: Bad Eggs”, IF Magazine, August 2002, pp 44–48. Noël Carroll, “Notes on the Sight Gag” in Comedy/Cinema/Theory, ed. Andrew Horton, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991. Something similar happens in an otherwise much weaker Australian cop comedy, Anthony Mir’s You Can’t Stop the Murders (2003).