SWINGING SAFARI. Guy Pearce, Radha Mitchell, Julian McMahon, Kylie Minogue, Asher Keddie, Jeremy Sims. Directed by Stephan Elliot. 96 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, sex scenes and coarse language).
The framing device of ‘Swinging Safari’, if it can be called one, is the bloated carcass of a blue whale that washes ashore on a beach in the Queensland town of Wallaroo. As the creature slowly decays, the intersecting stories of three families zip across the screen in a dizzying assault of risqué humour, dubious parenting and dazzling 70s designs. The families in question all share the same street, but each represents a different slice of nostalgia-heavy Australiana: there’s the poor Hall clan, whose feral kids are barely kept in check by encyclopaedia salesman father Keith (Guy Pearce) and ignored by alcoholic mother Kaye (Kylie Minogue); there’s the middle class Marsh foursome, led by gadget importer Bob (Jeremy Sims) and tennis lover and clean freak Gale (Asher Keddie); and there’s the wealthy Joneses, flush with cash from Rick’s (Julian McMahon) pharma business and Jo’s (Radha Mitchell) exotic travel agency.
Teenage film obsessive Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb, strangely blank) and his girl-next-door crush, Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson, flat), occupy the centre of the film. An adult Jeff (Richard Roxburgh) narrates the film, reflecting on his childhood, much of which he experienced through the lens of an 8mm camera. He corrals the other children, especially the numerous Hall boys, to join his production company, called the Death Cheaters, and perform wildly dangerous stunts in his amateur productions. Jeff can’t quite nail down the plot of his film, but something as superfluous as story won’t stop him from setting his friends on fire or chaining them to the bottom of a pool, because the newly minted ‘blockbuster’ craze has arrived and demands to be satisfied (his ‘Jaws’ sequel, ‘Jaws 2, People 0’, is a clever early gag).
Unbeknownst to the children, there is a different vogue sweeping through their parents’ generation, as the sexual revolution titillates the nation. Gale and Jo plan a “key party”, a swinging event during which the men place their keys into a vase and the women take turns to draw them out to select their sexual partner. As one might imagine such an event playing out between married friends, it ends poorly, opening rifts between the residents of Wyong Place. The remainder of the plot sees the three families struggling to regain normalcy, as their beef is played out through petty pranks while their children watch on in confusion.
The strongest asset of ‘Swinging Safari’ is its adult cast, whom deliver vanity free performances that fizz with abandon. Pearce lets loose once more for his ‘Priscilla’ director, his Keith a man desperate to not let the newfound prosperity of the 70s pass him by, and whose luxurious handlebar moustache deserves a film of its own. Opposite his bluster, Minogue dampens her charm to play a near mute agoraphobe, her eyes wild and panicked until she finds solace from her wild brood in her vodka & colas. In the middle, Sims and Keddie are a strong double act too. Sims, his gut protruding over his flip-flops, looks and acts every inch the Aussie everyman, and sells his one-on-one moments with Jeff, while Keddie richly conveys her character’s neuroses and dissatisfactions in life, her frantic cleanliness easily mined for laughs. McMahon and Mitchell are hilariously sleazy as the Joneses, often opting for bathing suits over clothing and generating levels of camp that sit snugly within the film’s wonderful 70s production design.
However, like the cheesy fondue that the adults dine on during their swinging party, the film is a mixed pot. While the adult cast is extremely strong, the younger performers aren’t quite up to carrying to film – the limp drama of Jeff and Melly’s cutesy romance doesn’t support the weight its given. Better to have focused on the strain placed on the grown-ups by their misguided attempts at adultery, I say, a situation with more dramatic heft and a plot thread populated with far more charismatic actors. The jokes themselves are also hit and miss. Some tackle taboos but reap risky rewards (Jeff and Kaye introducing their boys to vodka and cigarettes comes to mind), but others spectacularly fail to land (a joke about Catholic boarding schools stands out, and you can guess where that one goes). Writer-director Stephan Elliot is predominantly associated with his hit ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’, and he has struggled to escape its long shadow since. ‘Swinging Safari’ doesn’t represent his rock bottom (that dubious honour is reserved for his dreadful ‘A Few Best Men’), but it’s a far cry from the heartfelt dramedy of ‘Priscilla’.
The decade is described early in the film as having ‘too much time, too much money and too much cask wine on its hands’. Given the cracking adult cast Elliot has assembled here, and the love that has clearly been poured into the film’s excellent designs, this was not a film assembled on a shoestring. However, given its manic pace and oft wayward narrative, perhaps there was a little too much cask wine involved.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 18.
Becker Film Group.