'Sucker': Film Review

Courtesy of Madman Entertainment
Spall or nothing.

Timothy Spall and YouTube sensation John 'mychonny' Luc star in Ben Chessell's con-man comedy from Australia.

Timothy Spall lends crucial ballast to Sucker, an Australian confection otherwise so lightweight it's in danger of blowing away in the next breeze. Presenting a bouncy take on the second-generation migrant experience, Ben Chessell's road movie about a veteran con man and his Chinese-Australian apprentice is — like its youthful protagonist — puppyishly appealing up to a certain point.

Box-office prospects are brightest at home, where John Luc (who stars) and Lawrence Leung (adapting his own quasi-autobiographical, award-winning one-man show) have considerable small-screen followings and where the pic will be rolled out in December via antipodean distributor Madman Entertainment. Elsewhere, the ebullient contributions of Spall — his profile on the crest of a wave worldwide post-Mr. Turner — will doubtlessly be foregrounded in promotional materials, with spotty festival play and rather healthier TV sales the likely result.

Enterprising distributors may position this low-budget affair as an indie alternative to Lionsgate's star-studded con-artistry sequel Now You See Me 2, which will hit multiplexes in June amid similar narrative sleights-of-hand. World-premiering amid little fanfare at the Melbourne International Film Festival in the summer, Sucker has since popped up in a couple of lower-key events, winning best narrative feature at the inaugural, border-straddling St. Lawrence International Film Festival in October.

It's a moderately promising transition from TV to features for Chessell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Leung (who appears to address the audience directly in prologue and epilogue). The script relies on such complicity, challenging the viewer to stay one step of its twisty ingenuities as we follow the adventures and misadventures of callow 17-year-old Lawrence (Luc).

Failing to get into medical school, to the dismay of his tradition-minded, eminently respectable parents, Lawrence is packed off to stay with his uncle Sam (Yang Li) in another city but soon stumbles across a more stimulating role model in the larger-than-life shape of a Brit known only as The Professor (Spall). In the tradition of Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight (1996) and 2000 Argentinean art-house hit Nine Queens (remade Stateside as 2004's Criminal), Sucker pivots on the superficially genial but teasingly ambiguous relationship that develops between middle-aged shyster and eager-to-learn greenhorn.

Emotional complications are added via The Professor's attractive, twentyish daughter Sarah (Lily Sullivan), a crucial if not always entirely willing component in her old man's various scams and schemes, including a somewhat sordid hotel-honeytrap extortion. But the colorful, brightly lit pic doesn't dwell much on the latter, as Chessell and his editor Rodrigo Balart (who cut all six webisodes of Luc's MyChonny Moves In) rattle things along at a merry clip with a certain self-referential, self-deconstructing insouciance. Much of the humor, involving haplessly greedy small-town marks (Australian audiences will enjoy spotting familiar faces in cameo roles), is as broad as the Yarra River, and by no means does all of it hit the target.

The smiling, upbeat Luc, who is of Chinese-Vietnamese ancestry, proves a reasonably engaging screen presence as the eager-to-please Lawrence, but at several stages his lack of acting experience becomes apparent. Where Spall barely breaks sweat, Luc too often gives an impression of strenuous effort. This may not be a problem, however, for the sizeable fanbase he's accumulated over the past decade via YouTube, where Luc — aka 'mychonny' — currently boasts over 980,000 subscribers to his channel. His madcap skits, most of them running around five minutes, have amassed some astronomical view-counts: 37 have been seen more than a million times; four have passed the five-million mark: and 'Justin Bieber Is a Gay Baby' tops the list with more than 19 million views.

Luc's sketches often pivot on culture-clash issues, specifically the habits and foibles of Chinese-Australians, with wider applications in terms of East Asian migrants to 'Western' countries. Similar concerns add welcome texture to the film, which explores the terrain with a light touch but a telling eye for behavioral and conversational detail as Lawrence struggles under the weight of parental expectations.

An episodic, uneven affair, Sucker progresses haphazardly to a somewhat underwhelming finale involving a high-stakes poker game in the kitchens of a fancy Melbourne hotel, with our heroes pitted against The Professor's nemesis Riley (underused Jacek Koman). Chessell conjures a certain knockabout brio, and the proceedings temporarily take off whenever the spotlight rests on Spall. While never remotely extended, the actor invests The Professor with sufficient layers of puckish guile to render his true intentions ambiguous until the very last reveal.

Production companies: Guilty Content, Robyn Kershaw Productions
Cast: John Luc, Timothy Spall, Lily Sullivan, Jacek Koman, Lawrence Leung
Director: Ben Chessell
Screenwriters: Ben Chessell, Lawrence Leung, based on Leung's play
Producers: Jason Byrne, Robyn Kershaw
Executive producer: Joan Peters
Cinematographer: Katie Milwright
Production designer: Otello Stolfo
Costume designer: Anna Borghesi
Editor: Rodrigo Balart 
Sales: Level K, Copenhagen
Not rated, 96 minutes