SWINGING SAFARI

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Stephan Elliott

Stars: Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Radha Mitchell, Asher Keddie, Julian McMahon, Jeremy Sims, Atticus Robb, Darcey Wilson, Jack Thompson, Jacob Elordi, Chelsea Glaw, Richard Roxburgh.

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Set in the 1970s, Stephan Elliott’s latest film is a semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy and satirical look at Australian culture and values of the time. It was a time of laissez-faire parenting, lazy weekends spent on the beach, sunburned kids long before the era of “slip, slop, slap”, and a time when American culture was making inroads into Australian suburbs and the sexual revolution was in full swing. The film is full of risqué, caustic politically incorrect humour that will offend many, but then again Elliott is a filmmaker who deliberately sets out to ruffle a few feathers.

Elliott’s surrogate here is fourteen-year old Jeff Marsh (played in terrific style by newcomer Atticus Robb), who lives in a sleepy suburban cul-de-sac with close friends and neighbours. Jeff is an aspiring young filmmaker who uses his super 8mm camera to shoot homemade adventure and horror films in his backyard using his friends as cast members and stunt performers. His best friend is the shy Melly Jones (newcomer Darcey Wilson), who is a fictionalised version of Lizzy Gardiner, Elliott’s Oscar winning long time costumer designer. However, the dynamics of the close-knit neighbourhood change when Jeff’s parents indulge in a wife swapping key party with two other close families. (Remember Ang Lee’s 70s set drama The Ice Storm?) And their actions and the resultant sexual tension have consequences that place a strain on the once close relationships.

A major subplot concerns a 200-ton blue whale that is washed up on the beach. It becomes a media sensation and an object of curiosity that attracts tourists to the sleepy little beachside town of Nobby’s Beach. But as the whale begins to stink, plans are hatched to try and move it off the beach.

The original title was Flammable Children, but Elliott reluctantly changed it when too many people thought that he was making a horror movie rather than a satirical comedy. Thanks to Colin Gibson’s production design, Swinging Safari is steeped in a sense of 70s nostalgia that will resonate with people who grew up in that era. There are references to Number 96, the raunchy night time soap that dominated the ratings, and liberal use of K-Tel products, music from the era on the soundtrack, boxed wine, polyester suits, daggy colourful costumes and bad hair styles.

Elliott and his cinematographer Brad Shield (The Square, etc) employ a deliberately gaudy colour palette and retro style to reflect the era as well.

Elliott has cast his film using familiar faces drawn from the world of television soaps, and they are clearly enjoying themselves as these dysfunctional characters. Julian McMahon (Nip/Tuck, etc) and Radha Mitchell play Rick and Jo Jones, the alpha married couple, while Asher Keddie (Offspring, etc) and Jeremy Sims (Chances, etc) play Jeff’s ineffectual parents Bob and Gale. Guy Pearce, who worked with Elliott on Priscilla, and his former Neighbours co-star Kylie Minogue play encyclopaedia salesman Keith Hall and his mousy, alcoholic and agoraphobic wife Kaye, who rarely leaves the comfort of her home. An almost unrecognisable Minogue is largely against type here, but her performance gives her little to do and she is outshone by the rest of the ensemble.  Jack Thompson has a small role as the town mayor, while Richard Roxburgh provides the voice over narration as the adult Jeff.

The film is at once an affectionate celebration of the unique Australian culture, but also a savagely funny and broad critique of some of our eccentricities and idiosyncrasies and our quintessentially bogan nature. These are themes that have run through much of Elliott’s uneven oeuvre, especially The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and the much-maligned Welcome To Woop Woop. There is a manic energy to the film as it races from one wild set up to the next, barely pausing to catch its breath. As with many of Elliott’s previous films there are many cringeworthy moments as his irreverent and iconoclastic sense of humour goes wildly over the top. There is an episodic nature to much of the film, which tends to look back on the era through rose coloured glasses, but which gives the material an unfocussed approach. A lot of the hit and miss humour does fall flat and Swinging Safari will not appeal to everyone.

★★★

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