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You know you’re watching a film that revels in its own bad taste when it casually pans past a magazine cover touting Karen Carpenter’s new wonder diet. Crass, colorful and hanging together by the barest of threads, Swinging Safari is the new comedy from Stephan Elliott, reuniting here with Guy Pearce, who starred in the director’s 1994 smash, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Set in 1975 and loosely inspired by Elliott’s childhood, it also reunites Pearce and Kylie Minogue (Holy Motors), whose careers began together on the iconic local soap Neighbours.
Like that show, Swinging Safari is set mostly on one street. The film follows three families, as seen from the point of view of 14-year-old Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb), a boy with a Super-8 camera, lots of enthusiasm but no plot. One comes along, or so a voiceover supplied by the adult Jeff (Richard Roxburgh) tells us, when a giant whale washes up at Nobbys Beach, the sunny seaside town he calls home. Just how the whale powers the plot never becomes clear. Its chief reason for being seems to be a demolition in the film’s blubber- and blood-drenched finale overseen by the Mayor (Jack Thompson), who’s worried about the impact of the carcass on the tourist trade, in one of the film’s numerous nods to 1975’s Jaws.
The whale rots on the beach, unable to escape, and Jeff feels just as stuck. His home life is a mess, thanks chiefly to a disastrous decision by next-door neighbor Jo Jones (Radha Mitchell), the kaftan-wearing wife of Rick (Julian McMahon, sporting his native accent for the first time in decades), to throw a swingers party. Invited are Jeff’s parents, Gale and Bob (Asher Keddie and Jeremy Sims), and Keith and Kaye Hall (Pearce and Minogue). But when one of the group gets cold feet, the evening ends in recriminations and wounded pride, and the street becomes a battleground.
You can see why Elliott enlisted three editors (Sue Blainey, Annette Davey and Laurie Hughes). Cutting between the Super-8 footage captured in the backyard by Jeff and his crew of stuntmen — mostly the Hall and Jones children, whom Jeff regularly sets on fire — and DP Brad Shield’s Day-Glo photography, Elliott whizzes from montage to sight gag to flashbacks and flash-forwards, skittering sideways for frequent discursions about the family pets or a disastrous incident with a beach umbrella.
The director has spoken about the script as a collage of memories, and that’s about how it plays: an affectionate procession of period trappings defined by their bad taste. Safari suits, leopard prints, polyester and nylon jumpsuits, conversation pits, shag-pile carpets, lazy Susans serving fondue soaked in melted cheese: production designer Colin Gibson and costume designer Lizzy Gardiner (both Priscilla alums) go to town.
The whole thing is nominally the story of Jeff and his budding relationship with next-door neighbor Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson). Like Jeff, Melly is a victim of burns from synthetic clothing that caught alight, and the film was originally titled Flammable Children. But it never quite coheres into either a romance or a coming-of-age story. The adults are just more memorable.
As the man who suffers a crisis of conscience during the fateful wife-swap, Sims emerges as the film’s beating heart, whether he’s offering to show Jeff how to put on a condom or trying to mend bridges with his neighbors. Minogue nicely underplays the housewife with a booze problem who’s outgrown her husband, while a handlebar-stache-adorned Pearce, as an encyclopedia salesman living in the basement, rather mugs it up. If this and 2008’s Adam Sandler vehicle Bedtime Stories are any indication, comedy is not this gifted actor’s forte.
Mitchell is unrecognizable as the louche, trouble-stirring Jo, while McMahon looks like he’s having a ball elongating all those vowels. And newcomer Chelsea Glaw more than holds her own as Jeff’s sexually precocious older sister, Bec, who cries with gratitude when her parents put her on the pill.
Original tracks from the film’s composer Guy Gross are threaded alongside period-specific ones spinning on the Jones’ K-Tel record selector. They include the 1962 hit by Bert Kaempfert from which the film takes its title, as well as Lally Scott’s 1971 “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.” Scott’s hit is sung by Minogue herself, in a characteristically cheeky nod to the nickname bestowed on her early in her career: the singing budgie.
Production companies: See Pictures, Wildheart Films
Writer-director: Stephan Elliott
Cast: Atticus Robb, Darcey Wilson, Chelsea Glaw, Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Asher Keddie, Jeremy Sims, Radha Mitchell, Julian McMahon, Jack Thompson
Producers: Al Clark, Jamie Hilton
Co-producer: Ester Harding
Executive producers: Christopher Figg, Lisa Lambert, Robert Whitehouse
Cinematographer: Brad Shield
Production designer: Colin Gibson
Costume designer: Lizzy Gardiner
Art director: Jodie Whetter
Set decorator: Justine Dunn
Composer: Guy Gross
Editors: Sue Blainey, Annette Davey, Laurie Hughes
Casting: Ann Robinson
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