Introducing the Dwights

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Brenda Blethyn's alarm clock blares out "Bad to the Bone" to get her going. Add "funny" to "bone" and you have the nature of this uneven Australian comedy, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival. An ambitious coming-of-age story spliced together with a midlife-crisis yarn, "Clubland" is a heavy-handed and often ham-fisted film that will have trouble holding the discerning audiences that appreciate Blethyn's talents.

In this Down Under blunder, Blethyn stars as Jean, a tart-tongued former comedian who had her day in the U.K. Transplanted to Australia after her marriage to a one-hit wonder, Blethyn has slogged away in various odd jobs while raising her two kids. She has now reached the point of life where she fancies some independence: The oldest son is working, while the younger son, brain damaged at birth, is functioning well enough, she considers.

Jean plays some minor gigs, reminiscent of her Music Hall and variety show days. Her comedy is an old-style cross between Erma Bombeck and Don Rickles, delivered by Ethel Merman. She's one tart-talking hoofer, but not surprisingly her shtick does not go over well with the cell-phone-yapping baby moguls.

Ambitiously spinning Jean's comeback story along with her ferociously maternal instincts not to let go of her eldest son, "Clubland" is one ambitious story. Unfortunately, screenwriter Keith Thompson's ambitious script never congeals until the climax, in large part mired by director Cherie Nowlan's indelicate direction. Nowlan pumps the drama, as well as the comedy, to blaring pitch. Similarly, several attempts at cutesiness slog down into rank contrivance, most egregiously the usage of the brain-damaged son as some sort of court-jester savant.

More inspired is Blethyn's lead performance as the bitter laugh-seeker. Blethyn struts a lot of stuff, both onstage and in the kitchen. Her turn is both tempestuous and tender.

Unfortunately, her incessant shrieking, singing and braying is overwhelming to the ears.

Other cast members consistently shine, including Khan Chittenden as her overwhelmed oldest son and Emma Booth as his insecure girlfriend. Richard Wilson is charismatic as the brain-damaged son, albeit woefully misused, while Frankie J. Holden is a hoot as their singer father, now toiling as a security guard.

Technical contributions are a mixed bag under Nowlan's overwrought direction. While it's terrific to hear Janis Joplin wailing away, or other 1960s blasts that clue us to Jean's era and mind-set, their use as transitional fodder contributes to the atonalities of the film. More successful is production designer Nell Hanson's creation of Jean's glory-days digs, of old playbills and triumphs -- all emblematic of her living in the past.

CLUBLAND
Film Finance Corp. Australia
Credits:
Producer: Rosemary Blight
Director: Cherie Nowlan
Screenwriter: Keith Thompson
Executive producer: Tristan Whalley
Director of photography: Mark Wareham
Production designer: Nell Hanson
Music: Martin Armiger
Editor: Scott Gray
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Cast:
Jean: Brenda Blethyn
Tim: Khan Chittenden
Jill: Emma Booth
Mark: Richard Wilson
John: Frankie J. Holden
Lana: Rebecca Gibney
Ronnie: Philip Quast
Kelly: Katie Wall
Shane: Russell Dykstra
Running time -- 108 minutes
No MPAA rating
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