I love Australia. I love their cute marsupials and their adorable accents. I especially love Australian films so you can just imagine how fast I ran down to the nearest multiplex to see Baz Luhrman’s very expensive and very epic “Australia.” For the sake of argument, let’s say you too love Australia. Will you love “Australia?” Or might your next Aussie Movie Night be better spent scouring the movie outback for something more scaled down and intimate? “The Castle,” perhaps the smallest and un-mightiest of all Australian films, loads up its telemovie slingshot against all the CGI battleships and bombers movie money can buy. It’s David against Goliath. Let’s see if history repeats itself.
“Australia” director Baz Luhrman makes very pretty images. I’ll give him that. And they’re
not making romantic epics much these days. I’ll give him that too. What the heck. I’m in a holiday mood.
It’s almost three hours long. You should know that up front. If you’re still undaunted, I’m not about to throw any spoilers in your way. Suffice it to say that you’re in for a lot of scenery. Costume changes. Cattle drives. Evil cattle baron – the kind of bad guy who actually snarls and wears a black hat. Institutionalized racism. Horses. Campfires. Personalized racism. Hypocrisy. World War II. Class struggle. Noble savages. Greed. Nameless, shirtless heroes. Scrappy unlikely motley crews accomplishing the impossible. Mistaken identity. Slow motion running. Murder. Mayhem. Magic. Harmonicas. Clichés of every description recycled for your viewing pleasure (or annoyance).
So here’s the thing. If you loved “Australia,” stop reading this right now. Skip to the other part about “The Castle.” Actually, if you loved “Australia,” you probably should just skip reading this post altogether. I can’t promise I won’t say something mean that will make you hate me and doubt yourself. Stay pure. Step away from the computer screen. Better yet: Go look at puppies or kittens. Here’s a link I’m pretty sure you’ll like much more than anything I have to say.
The Defending Champion
“The Castle” follows a laugh-out-loud-funny (and functional) family embroiled in an unlikely legal battle that goes all the way to Australia’s highest court. Unless you’re a tin man whose heart was forgotten at the forge, you’ll fall in movie love with the fictional Kerrigans. Every performance is pitch perfect and memorable, every line of dialogue quotable. The cast is richly populated with Australian television actors, no stars of any real international renown unless you count the barely recognizable, pre-rhinoplasty Eric Bana complete with baby fat.
No vistas. No CGI. No history. No cattle. Just heart and wit. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to recommend this rarely seen little gem. Barely more than a TV movie that somehow escaped over the borders, I’ve watched it more times than I can count, and it still charms me utterly. In the time it takes you to watch Baz Luhrman’s “Australia,” you can watch it twice. And watch it you should.
Darryl Kerrigan is impeccably played by actor Michael Caton, a cartoon of a man who most resembles the living breathing embodiment of (whoa, flashback time) Alvin and the Chipmunks’ second banana Clyde Crashcup. Anne Tenney plays Sal, his adoring wife; their marriage is one of the sweetest and quirkiest ever captured on film and their family the most uniquely endearing.
(A very unexpected sidebar: My Brother The Law Professor uses one particularly hilarious scene from the film to teach his students how not to practice law. You’ll recognize it when you see it. By the vibe.)
There are moments of true genius in Luhrman’s epic “Australia.” Absolutely brilliant Brandon Walters’ Nullah steals the show right from under the two stars. He’s riveting to watch, the richly drawn creamy center, heartbreakingly beautiful and moving. He performs a feat of drover magic that literally brought tears to my eyes and cows to the very edge of a cliff. “Walkabout” star David Gulpilil plays King George with a magical moral gravity that makes American movie moral compass go-to guy Morgan Freeman look like Larry Flynt. The natives occupy and own not only the moral high ground but the geographical high ground as well. They’re the very best part of this very big film.
So. Let’s talk about the stars. It’s a romance. It matters that we care if the two stars wind up together. It’s Scarlett and Rhett. Only in “Australia,” it’s Mrs. Boss and Drover. Two less romantic monikers would be hard to find in all cinema’s history, but here’s the sad truth. All that money, all those vistas, all that longing, all those aerial views come to less than the sum of their parts because the two leads aren’t a good movie couple. They generate no heat. No sex.
Maybe it’s the height thing. Maybe it’s the friendship thing. Apparently, Mr. J and Ms. K know each other rather well in real life; this sort of platonic stuff can spill over and spoil the passion.
I don’t even recall now whether there were any real sex-in-a-rumpled-bed scenes, but my memory of their bed time merges awkwardly with memories of Rob and Laura Petrie. Drover and Mrs. Boss may not have slept in two twin beds separated by a nightstand, but it felt that way to me, even when they kissed. Separated by something awkward. All possible heat extinguished. I know the Outback is hot, but they didn’t even generate that kind of hot. Note to filmmakers: It’s never a good thing when the leading man looks better filthy than he does cleaned up in a tux. Their climactic dance was about as romantic as watching a lone ballerina twirl on top of a jewelry box.
Here are some additional and nagging questions “Australia” generated for me: Does size matter? Is bigger better? Is three hours too long to sit in the multiplex? How many movie clichés can a director reference before his epic gets mired in homage? How dare they spoil “Over The Rainbow?” Am I the only audience member who wanted to switch over to watching “The Wizard of Oz” with Nullah? Are ten unconvincing CGI ships spouting CGI smoke in a CGI harbor better than none? What the hell has Nicole Kidman done to her face? What’s a drover anyway and why doesn’t he get a real name? Is Hugh Jackman really the sexiest man of the year?
Bottom line: If you like big vistas and don’t mind simpleminded plots that have to rev up from scratch every hour or two, if you’ve never seen a big movie you didn’t love, “Australia” is the way to spend several hours of your next free day.
There were plenty of other deliciously smackable Australian films I could have praised highly in this space, and since it’s the holiday season and I’m in a gift-giving mood, here’s a little handful of Down Under delights that dwell high atop my own personal pantheon. My holiday prezzy for all you Blokes and Sheilas. I reckon they’re all Fair Dinkum rippers. Bloody oath!
If, after three hours awash in LuhrmanLand, you’re still hungry for more of the same or better, here are some suggestions for you. Want more Aboriginal lore and culture? “Walkabout” (1971). More Australian history? “Rabbit Proof Fence” (2002). More Gorgeous Australian Vistas? “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994). More Quirky Romance? “Love Serenade” (1996) or New Zealand’s “The Price of Milk” (2000). Can’t get enough Nicole Kidman spouting romantic nonsense in great looking costumes on great looking sets? “Moulin Rouge” (2001).
And hey. In case you’re in the mood for more Bad CGI and Big Stars Generating No Romantic Heat in a Cardboard Romances Set Against WWII? You can always rent the 2001 bomb, “Pearl Harbor.”
That film is the celluloid proof that big budgets hardly guarantee greatness on the screen; they only guarantee that significant amounts of money get spent. As often as not, it’s bloat. I’m a writer, and I truly do believe that if it’s not on the page, all the money in the world can’t make a film truly excellent. Let’s just say, as a screenwriter, Baz Luhrman is a terrifically overheated and visual director. Merry Christmas To All And To All Lots Of Good Light.
“The Castle” doesn’t have much going for it in terms of cinematic beauty or technical excellence of any kind. It’s competent filmmaking shot on the cheap. What it does have that all the bloated and disappointing big films rarely have is a terrific script. A simple story amusingly told, recognizable human behavior, original characters…they had me at G’day.
Maybe it’s just me. But I’ll take a small smart funny film over a big bloated one just about any day of any week. Still, I respect your right to choose. For some, size matters. For me, it’s “The Castle. style=”background-color: #ffff00; font-family: Trebuchet MS;”>” Hooroo for now.