P.J. Hogan's new film Mental follows in a tradition of quirky Australian suburban comedies. We take a look back at some of the funny and not-so-funny examples from over the years.
Probably only in Australia would audiences adore movies about a bloke who fixes dunnies and a family who refuses to leave their modest abode. Yes, there is something quintessentially Australian about the humour in Kenny and The Castle.
The suburban comedy has long been a staple of Australian cinema, yielding a sizable number of movies that deserve to be ranked as classics and more than a few that were neither amusing nor memorable.
By my reckoning, P.J. Hogan’s two films in the genre can’t be classed in the same category: Muriel’s Wedding is superbly crafted, top-shelf entertainment while Mental sits in the lowest echelon.
The suburban milieu is one of the most successful in Australian cinema. Asked why that’s the case, one veteran distributor tells SBS Film that’s “probably due to the fact that we have sucked at most other genres.”
But for every crowd-pleaser there have been at least one or more ineptly-made duds or cringe-making embarrassments. Shown a list of the films I judged among the worst in the oeuvre, one experienced producer said, “Your list brings back unpleasant memories.”
Here’s my highly subjective view of the best and worst in the genre...
The triumphs: The Castle (1997)
The Rob-Sitch directed saga of the Kerrigan family and their fight to remain in their humble home was rated by Roger Ebert as “one of those comic treasures, like The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine, that shows its characters in the full bloom of glorious eccentricity. Michael Caton’s immortal line “Tell ‘em they're dreamin'” became an oft-repeated catchphrase. And talk about value for money: the budget was $20,000.
Mick Molloy co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Jack Simpson, a scam artist who joins the local bowls club. He’s forced to don the whites when the club is hit by injury and becomes an unlikely hero who helps save the club from falling into the clutches of John Clarke’s shonky pokie machine mogul. Frank Wilson as the club president and Bill Hunter as a maverick add to the fun.
Don’s Party (1976)
Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of David Williamson’s play is a very funny and sharp-edged satire of Australian politics and suburban mores. John Hargreaves, Graham Kennedy, Ray Barrett, Pat Bishop, Harold Hopkins, Graeme Blundell and Candy Raymond are among the crackerjack cast as a group of friends who gather on election night in 1969 intending to celebrate the victory of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party. The night didn’t turn out as planned in myriad ways.
The mockumentary about the put-upon portaloo plumber with a heart of gold made a star out of Shane Jacobson, who co-wrote the screenplay with brother/director Clayton, and gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘toilet humour’. The accents were so thick and the gags so colloquial the film was sub-titled in the US.
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
This satire of an ugly duckling who becomes a swan introduced Oz and the rest of the world to the talents of Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths and writer-director P.J. Hogan. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin was won over by Hogan's “gleeful, gaudy tribute to one ungainly misfit and her determination”.
Martin Sacks and Joy Smithers play a battling Aussie couple living in a caravan who pursue the Australian dream of owning their own home in the outer suburbs, in director Denny Lawrence’s debut film which more resembles a TV sitcom than a fully realised feature. The barely coherent plot involving builders, real estate salesmen, a bank and busybody neighbours served mostly as a vehicle for a string of gags, most unfunny, weighed down by hammy performances from the supporting cast.
Like Muriel’s Wedding, P.J. Hogan’s film is set in a fictional Queensland town, focuses on dysfunctional parents and misfit kids and is based on events in Hogan’s childhood. There the similarities end: Mental is much darker and mean-spirited and there is no humour in the portrayal of various forms of mental illness, a reference to date rape and digs at lesbians, Aborigines and suburban stereotypes. Toni Collette struggles to make sense of the highly exaggerated Shaz, a pot-smoking, knife-wielding hippie who’s hired as a nanny to five troubled, unruly sisters.
The King Is Dead! (2012)
Rolf de Heer has made some memorable movies in The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Bad Boy Bubby but he’s way out of his comfort zone with this black comedy. Dan Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic play a couple who move into a house and encounter the neighbours from hell: an unemployed cretin named King (Gary Waddell) and his menacing, drug-dealing pals nicknamed Shrek (Luke Ford) and Escobar (Anthony Hayes). It’s neither funny nor remotely credible.
The Wog Boy (2000)
The spin-off of Nick Giannopoulos’ 1987 stage show Wogs Out of Work and TV series Acropolis Now was a box-office hit, but boy oh boy, is it painful to watch for non-devotees of broad, unsubtle, corny humour revolving around ethnic stereotypes. Nick’s Steve Karamatsis is cheerfully unemployed and on welfare. After a prang with a limo carrying the federal minister for employment, he becomes an unlikely national hero and role model for the unemployed. The 2010 sequel The Kings of Mykonos: Wog Boy 2 was even worse.
You and Your Stupid Mate (2005)
Marc Gracie’s caper about two idiot friends, Jeffrey (Angus Sampson) and Philip (Nathan Phillips) who try to save their favourite TV show, a soap called Sons and Surf, from being cancelled was an Australian attempt at Dumb & Dumber/Beavis and Butthead/Wayne’s World-style knucklehead humour. It failed miserably.
Monica Bellucci leads a host of good-looking Italian actors in this heart-warming, comical anthology of four interconnected tales of love. A radio DJ invites listeners to call in and tell their love stories. What follows are the stories of four different kinds of relationships. Directed by Giovanni Veronesi and also stars Carlo Verdone, Riccardo Scamarcio and Sergio Rubini. (From Italy, in Italian) (Romantic Comedy) (2007) (Rpt) M (S,L,N,V)
Empire Of The Wolves
Jean Reno stars in this fast paced action thriller in the vein of The Bourne Identity. Two police officers scour the underworld of Paris to investigate a series of brutal murders. The case leads them to a mysterious Turkish far-right group called the Grey Wolves. Directed by Chris Nahon, and also stars Arly Jover and Jocelyn Quivrin. (From France, in French and Turkish) (Thriller) (2005) (Rpt) MAV (V)
Saturday, 25th May
Based on true events, 16-year-old Jamie falls in with his mother's new boyfriend and his crowd of self-appointed neighbourhood watchmen, a relationship that leads to a spree of torture and murder. Winner of six Australian Film Institute awards in 2012, including Best Direction. Directed by Justin Kurzel and stars Lucas Pittaway, Bob Adriaens and Louise Harris. (From Australia) (Mystery/Crime) (2011) MAV (A,V,L) CC
Out Of The Blue
A powerful and haunting film based on the Aramoana massacre of 1990 where local recluse David Gray shot 13 people dead before going into hiding on the outskirts of the small New Zealand seaside village. As he stalked his victims the terrified and confused residents were trapped in the village for 24 hours while a handful of under-resourced and underarmed local policemen risked their lives trying to find him and save the survivors. Directed by Robert Sarkies and stars Karl Urban, Matthew Sunderland and Lois Lawn. (From New Zealand) (Drama) (2006) (Rpt) MAV (V)
Sunday, 26th May
The community is left reeling after a multiple shooting on a suburban train in Melbourne's inner-west. A young cop, beset with doubt and afflicted with tinnitus, is pitched into the chaos that follows this tragic event. He struggles to clear the noises in his head while all around him deal with the fallout of the crime. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema) at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Matthew Saville and stars Brendan Cowell, Maia Thomas and Henry Nixon. (From Australia) (Drama) (2007) (Rpt) MA (V,L) CC
Monday, 27th May
A law student, disillusioned by the justice system, gets hold of a mystical notebook that gives him the power to kill by writing down a victim's name. He starts to bring criminals to justice himself by killing them using the notebook. A dark fantasy based on a successful manga series that was a huge box office success in Japan. Directed by Shusuke Kaneko and stars Tatsuya Fujiwara, Asaka Seto and Kenichi Matsuyama. (From Japan, in Japanese) (Thriller) (2006) (Rpt) M (H,V)
Tuesday, 28th May
During the summer of 1968, young Arik Burstein goes to work for a matchmaker who has survived the Holocaust. As Arik begins to learn the personal stories of his new clients, he comes to appreciate the restorative power of love. Nominated for the Gold Hugo for Best Feature at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival. Directed by Avi Nesher and stars Adir Miller, Maya Dagan and Tuval Shafir. (From Israel, in Hebrew) (Romance) (2010) M (S,L)
Wednesday, 29th May
Lebanon's official entry at the 2008 Academy Awards takes a vibrant and intricate look at the lives and relationships of five Christian and Muslim women who work at, and frequent, a Beirut beauty salon. Directed by and stars Nadine Labaki. Also stars Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel and Gisele Aouad. (From France, in Arabic) (Drama) (2007) (Rpt) M (A)
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance
Beautiful Lee Guem-ja is finally out of jail after thirteen years imprisonment for the kidnap and murder of a six-year-old boy. She can now start to seek revenge on the man who was really responsible for the boy's death. But will her actions lead to the relief she seeks? Nominated for Best Asian Film at the 2006 Hong Kong Film Awards. Directed by Park Chan-wook and stars Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik and Tony Barry. (From South Korea, in Korean) (Drama) (2005) (Rpt) MAV (V,S)
Thursday, 30th May
A powerful, understated look at post-war Sarajevo with a single mother's struggle to survive her personal demons and raise a teenage daughter in a city broken and scarred by conflict. Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival. Directed by Jasmila Zbanic and stars Mirjana Karanovic, Luna Mijovic and Leon Lucev. (From Germany, in Bosnian) (Drama) (2006) (Rpt) MA (L)