Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kriv Stenders
Stars: Samuel Johnson, Colin Friels, Sacha Horler, Kestie Morassi, Jessica Napier, Sarah Pierse, Jason Gann, Paul Sonnkila.
Much has been written recently about the state of the local film industry, speculating about the reasons why audiences stay away in droves from our quirky, unfunny comedies and bleak, downbeat dramas. While the producers of this original but off beat low budget drama hold out high hopes for it, The Illustrated Family Doctor is unlikely to change audiences’ perceptions about local productions and their lack of commercial appeal. Written and directed by first timer Kriv Stenders (a veteran of stylish commercials), this is a relentlessly grim and depressing black comedy about the absurdities of modern life. Indeed, not everyone will be attuned to its mordant streak of viciously black humour, and this is unlikely to hold broad appeal.
Gary Kelp (Samuel Johnson, in a role far removed from his lovable larrikin image) is a sub-editor for a company that produces condensed versions of popular books for the mass market. At the moment he is working on condensing a graphic medical reference, a task for which he noticeably lacks enthusiasm. Then his father suddenly dies, and Gary learns that his organs were harvested for donation.
Gary’s life then begins to fall apart as he begins to suffer from all sorts of strange debilitating illnesses, until he is diagnosed with kidney failure. Some of his illnesses may even be psychosomatic. His work suffers, and even his personal life becomes increasingly messy and dangerous. And then there is the malevolent presence of the Chopper Read like gangster Snapper Thompson (Paul Sonkkila), who is working with the company on a series of “true crime” books. It is only the friendship and sage advice of senior editor Ray (Colin Friels) that helps Gary sort out his life and ultimately get back on track.
The film finds the perfect ending, but then undoes it all with a meaningless coda. Again, the basic problem seems to be with an underdeveloped script that appears to have been rushed into production. The film was shot in just five weeks. The script fails to bring much warmth or life to the characters, many of whom are underdeveloped. Nonetheless, production values are quite good. The grey cinematography, moody lighting, functional costumes and sterile sets add to the overall atmosphere.
Johnson delivers a brave and emotionally raw performance in an unappealing role. His solid presence is the only major positive of an otherwise bleak and unattractive film that suggests that 2005 is going to be another year when the creative and politically motivated decisions of our film funding bodies will be put under the microscope.