This Australian feel-good film tells the story of fictional stand-up comedian Manny Lewis (Carl Barron), who enjoys a successful career but grapples with loneliness. Disenchanted with his life, he focuses on his career and making others happy. When he meets the beautiful Maria (Leeanna Walsman), Manny starts to think he may have a chance of falling in love. However, he first he must confront his past, heal his relationship with his father (Roy Billing), and learn to love himself.
This is a romantic comedy about depression. That sounds like it might be risky or hard to sit through – or both. It turns out to be neither; it’s a movie of contradictions. It’s tough about family and dubious about love, eager for romance but unwilling to really confront it.
The director is Anthony Mir, actor and occasional filmmaker whose last film was You Can’t Stop the Murders in 2003. Mir approaches the film’s hardboiled home truths with the dogged earnestness of someone with something important to say. Meanwhile cinematographer Carl Robertson fills the wide screen with a soft-lit prettiness; I’ve rarely seen inner city Sydney look so glam or scrubbed so clean. The style —and I’m being kind here— owes a debt to high-end travel ads and skit TV; it’s scene after scene of people talking in streets, lounges, restaurant and apartments, broken by the odd panorama of the twinkling harbour or the country side at sunrise. When Mir and co. want to crank the energy they intro some bouncy Spanish pop or go retro: The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’ makes a dashing entrance here in homage – of all things – to Risky Business (!).
The script was co-written by Mir and the film’s star, Carl Barron, better known as one of Australia’s top stand-ups. It’s often funny, episodic and threatens to go to dark places before settling into something that’s sweet and wholesome.
Barron plays a version of himself: Manny Lewis is a comic, a sad sack on the verge of international success, who can’t summon much enthusiasm for anything. Relationships are a no-go zone. Manny understands that a romance could mean bringing his vulnerability out of the closet. On stage his angst is ticklesome, the kind of self-loathing that audiences lap up as self-deprecating truthful life lessons. Alone in his luxury apartment high above the city, Manny’s pain is just pain. He begs his dad, Lyle (Roy Billing), for recognition but the old man, no stranger to self-loathing himself, understands the power of withholding. His agent Jimmy (Damien Harvey) acts as Manny’s guide, protector and cupid (and he’s conveniently indulgent to Manny’s selfishness until the plot needs a kick in the bum to keep it moving). To fend off the blues Manny calls a sex line and develops a rapport with one of the ‘dates’. He ends up sharing feelings he never could in a real relationship.
Early on in the movie Jimmy throws a party for Manny and invites eligible ga-ga fans as potential consorts. Manny embarrasses himself and the women as he fends off their well-intentioned and sincere flattery. “Would it be strange if I asked you for a hug?” one asks. “Yeah,” says Manny. It’s typical of film’s tone-deaf humour that it’s the woman who is the butt of this joke when the true target ought to be Manny since he’s the desperate one; a guy whose emotional maturity can be estimated by terror and outright hostility in the face of genuine human warmth.
But unlike, say, the slacker of Knocked Up or the unreconstructed new man of Groundhog Day, Manny doesn’t so much need a sentimental education more a therapist. But that’s what his stage is act is for. Manny has no illusions. He’s wised up. He fears intimacy and blames an unhappy childhood. But the story reminds him what he already knows… that it’s better to be loved than not and that the price of forgiveness is happiness.
What stops the film from choking on such cute piousness is Barron. With his permanently wrinkled ‘Who, me?’ eyebrows, shaven head and big ears, Barron has that loser rom-com thing down and a low energy delivery a la Paul Hogan besides. He’s a funny guy who knows he is funnier if he pretends to the world that he’s trying not be funny at all.
The theme here is the cost of emotional honesty. Which is why I guess Manny’s troubled relationship with his dad is given equal weight in the plot to his romance with Maria (Leeanna Walsman), a shy free spirit Manny pursues with awkward enthusiasm. All three characters aren’t comfortable with who they are to each other or themselves. This is the complication that gets in the way of the romance. Walsman, with her open face and eyes that flash hurt and tenderness in a blink, is a terrific emotional anchor; I wanted to see her race off with Manny at the end, even if I felt that it’s a union doomed in the long run. (He’s too screwed up and lacking in generosity for any one to put up with for long.) Still, even with all her screen time and a role that combines two identities Maria is thinly written; she seems to have no intimacies, and no goals beyond sailing to Rio and landing Manny as a boyfriend. Manny has criticisms of Maria, but Mir and Barron don’t give her a chance to negotiate. She emerges as pliant, idealised, flawed and passive, a stand-in for Manny’s fears and hopes. The charm of the film is that I hardly noticed this till after the fade out.
Manny Lewis has the standard tropes of the rom-com – misunderstandings, secrets and lies, missed opportunities, sudden let-downs – yet, there’s something hard to believe about its all tears and smiles finale. It's like they’re going though the motions. I think what Mir and Barron really adore here, isn’t the redeeming power of love, but the exquisite self-glorifying agony of showbiz. Director and star seem full-time subscribers to the ancient and sentimental myth that artists dignify their pain by turning it into a show. And the show is the only place where an artist can truly connect. Barron’s scenes with Walsman are fine but they lack heft. He’s at his best when he’s working solo, alone in his room, rehearsing in front of a mirror that never lies a better version of himself. And while he – and the movie – does that, romance is a hostage to his ego.