There’s a theory that says the perfect length for a comedy film is somewhere just south of 80 minutes. Any longer than that and you need to start adding non-comedic story and character elements to keep people watching, as there seems to be an inbuilt intolerance for silly antics once they drag on much longer than an hour. Good news: once you cut out the ads, Ed Kavalee’s long gestating self-financed movie Scumbus goes for just on 70 minutes. So that means it’s completely free of all that annoying “character development” and pointless tacked on serious drama rubbish, right? Right?
Ha, tricked you – it totally is free of all that stuff! In fact, even for a year that’s been surprisingly full of big-screen comedies – yeah, sorry we never reviewed Housos versus Authority, turns out it was the kind of unmitigated turd that didn’t deserve the slightest wiff of publicity oxygen, even if our review would have been so astoundingly negative it probably would have qualified as some kind of hate crime – Scumbus is without a doubt the funniest Australian feature film of 2012. So obviously it was screened only as a telemovie at 9.30 on a Saturday night on Channel Ten.
Actually though, this also works in its favour. Being “merely” a telemovie means Scumbus doesn’t have to try to be a “proper” movie, with the associated serious crap and character development and blah blah blah. It can just sit back, relax, and play pretty much everything for laughs. Which, as we’ve mentioned before, is what you want in a comedy, right? Not to mention the fairly limited range of low budget locations – at least half the movie takes place inside a caravan – plays a lot better on television that it would trying to compete on the big screen with Skyfall.
The story is simple: Tommy (Ed Kavalee) and Jesse (Toby Truslove) are flatmates who are also cops. How Jesse became a cop is a mystery, as he’s a borderline sex predator-slash-shit musician-slash-party guy-slash-sleazebag-slash-party drug vacuum. So yeah, this is Truslove’s funniest and most likable performance by far this year. Tommy is much more of a goody goody, but because he’s partnered with his incompetent best mate – who gave Tommy’s badge to a guy at a nude carwash because he “needed it” – his career is going nowhere. This is bad because he has a massive crush on detective Amy (Samantha Tolj) – though it seems it’s more his desire to be a detective than her supposed interest in only dating detectives that’s getting in his way there.
Having failed once again to secure any kind of promotion, Tommy is now going backwards: their boss (Glenn Robbins) has just demoted him and Jesse to working out of “The Scumbus”, a police caravan in a carpark in a suburb that seems to consist entirely of back lanes. This is not a good gig. The previous Scumbus cops (a genuinely scary Henry Nixon and an astoundingly thick Tony Martin) seem more than a little dodgy and local pimp-slash-drug-dealer-slash-cop-slasher Adam (Lachy Hulme) isn’t exactly happy to see them on his turf. How we get from here to a drug-fuelled party in the Scumbus with a bunch of girls Jesse met on an on-line dating site and some guy who seems to be a porn cameraman is a little hard to explain.
Much of what’s fun about Scumbus is the way it actually wants to just be a comedy. That is to say, there are no morals to be learnt here: in one scene where Jesse discovers an online hook-up is actually an excuse for Dave Hughes to watch someone get on with his wife, the usual result would be for Jesse to storm out in disgust. But why? She’s hot and he’s a sleaze. So here he just shrugs and gets back to work. Result: comedy.
[something to pay attention to: for a 21st century comedy there are a lot of “cute girl” roles, and all the “cute girls” look roughly the same. This isn’t exactly a return to the days of Alvin Purple – sorry guys, no nudity here – but this does feel like a film made by guys in their late twenties: if not all the jokes work, at least you can look at the girls! Who occasionally seem to suggest they may have been cast by a casting director who met them in a nightclub. But considering they’re all playing the kind of girls you’d meet in a nightclub, it’s win win! And before you put on your outrage hat, the character of Amy actually gets to make some good points about the kind of “nice” guys who don’t just ask out girls they obviously like, so it’s plain just about everyone here is a bit of a loser.]
There’s a great comedy cast here – Ryan Shelton does fine work as a creepy cat-obsessed cop, no-one’s better than Robbins when it comes to avuncular authority figures, Martin has a solid line in comedy stupidity and both Hughes and Peter Helliar in one-scene cameos are funnier than anything either has done in years – but there’s real variety in the characters too. Hulme is both a serious threat and pretty funny when he isn’t waving a knife around, Christian Clark as Tommy’s douchebag rival for Amy is a first-rate comedy smarm-artist, and again, Nixon is more frightening than the entire cast of Underbelly:Razor. Kavalee gives his nice guy character the occasional sex pest vibe too: this isn’t a story where a nice guy somehow can’t get the girl, it’s a story where the nice guy gets in his own way when it comes to the ladies because he can be a little bit creepy. Which is a lot funnier than the first option, and a lot more realistic too.
Scumbus does have its flaws. The ending is a little muddled thanks to an addition of an out-of-nowhere comedy bit that drags on too long – though the comedy song involved is pretty funny – and if it isn’t already clear, if you’re after anything more spectacular than a couple of people trading barbs in a caravan this is not the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you like to laugh, consider this review a ringing endorsement of what is one of the comedy highlights of the year: if a DVD release (or at least, an encore showing) isn’t on the cards, we might have to consider going into the bootlegging field ourselves.