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SYDNEY — It’s a risky business, the children-with-cancer film, and despite a valiant effort to leaven the gloom, Australian director Nadia Tass fails to lift “Matching Jack” above a handsomely photographed movie of the week. Like the grinning clown brought in to shave the kids’ heads in the oncology ward, all the good cheer and whimsy in the world can’t mask the wretched nature of its mission.
“Jack” has a fine cast and top-shelf production values. But the hard-sell subject matter and Tass’ staunchly sentimental approach means Fox, which hasn’t distributed an Australian film since 2008’s “Australia,” has an uphill battle on its hands.
Brisbane-born Jacinda Barrett (“Ladder 49”) weeps buckets as Marissa, the mother of 9-year-old leukemia sufferer Jack (Tom Russell). She also screeches quite a bit during a kitchen confrontation with her architect husband, David (Richard Roxburgh), who, she discovers, is planning to leave her for his latest girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski) and her sleek, matte-black apartment.
Roxburgh, a bit off the boil here, plays David as prissy and self-absorbed, and his interactions with his wife and son are as authentic and sincere as a politician kissing a baby. He has, in fact, been unfaithful for years, but there’s a potential upside to his serial philandering: He might have fathered a child who could provide the bone-marrow transplant needed to save Jack’s life.
In a somewhat implausible and excessive series of encounters, Marissa confronts a succession of cookie-cutter blondes in their homes, all but demanding paternity tests on their offspring.
Meanwhile, back in the ward, Jack has befriended an Irish boy named Finn (an affecting performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose relentlessly upbeat father, Connor (James Nesbitt), employs a battery of fanciful, nautically themed diversions to help his son through his waning days. Marissa and Connor soon forge a bond that moves beyond shared misery.
It has been 13 years since Tass, who had a hit with the locally beloved comedy “Malcolm” in 1986, released her most recent feature film, “Amy.” She has spent the intervening years working in U.S. television, and she brings a small-screen sensibility to this melodrama.
The film hits a couple of tearjerking bull’s-eyes, largely thanks to the talents of Nesbitt and McPhee. But the script, by Lynne Renew and David Parker, Tass’ husband and frequent collaborator, is shaky at times, with many key scenes underwritten or straining credibility.
The intrusion of panpipes and flutes, courtesy of Paul Grabowsky’s score, whenever the Irish father-son duo appears onscreen would test the patience of a leprechaun.
Opens: Thursday, Aug. 19 (Australia)
Production: Cascade Films
Cast: James Nesbitt, Jacinda Barrett, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Roxburgh, Yvonne Strahovski
Director: Nadia Tass
Screenwriters: Lynne Renew, David Parker
Producers: David Parker, Nadia Tass, Richard Keddie
Executive producers: Jamie Carmichael, Geoff Webb
Director of photography: David Parker
Production designer: Jon Dowding
Costume designer: Edie Kurzer
Music: Paul Grabowsky
Editor: Mark Warner
No rating, 103 minutes
Sales: ContentFilm International
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