There’s a lot to like about Abe Forsythe’s latest film Down Under, so let’s skip over that part quickly so we can get to the good stuff. Well, there’s a lot to like if you look at it as an Australian film; as an Australian comedy film… well, like we said, we’ll get to the good stuff later.
Considering the seemingly iron-clad limits on what kind of films Australia can make these days – “serious middle class drama so please hire us America”, “genre death in the outback so please hire us America” and “American film made in Australia” – Down Under rates simply because it’s something different: a comedy set the day after the 2005 Cronulla riots.
It’s about issues that are still relevant (what happens to a community when people divide themselves by race or tribe), it features some memorable performances, and despite what we’re about to say in the rest of this review it’s the kind of film that’s worth checking out if only because it’s a break from the usual forgettable pap our local film-makers serve up.
All that said, this is first and foremost a comedy and as a comedy it’s not much good. Borrowing so heavily from the Four Lions playbook Chris Morris should have been listed as a creative consultant, the comedy angle is that while the riots themselves were a serious issue, what we have here is four dickheads – no wait, two groups of four dickheads, so it’s clearly going one better than Four Lions – roaming the streets the day after the riots (so the riots themselves aren’t trivialised, see?) to protect their right to roam the streets.
With eight main characters plus a bunch of supporting cast there’s not a whole lot of room for in-depth characterisation here. Basically, whether you’re Leb or Skip you’re either an idiot who thinks driving around looking for someone to bash is a good idea, or an idiot who thinks driving around looking for someone to bash is a bad idea but you get dragged into it by your mates. Or you’re someone with mild Down’s Syndrome who is clearly going to be the smartest, most insightful character here because driving around looking for someone to bash is a very stupid idea indeed.
To give the film credit, for the most part it doesn’t try to redeem any of its characters by pulling a last minute “aww, they ain’t so bad really” move. And Forsythe does a bunch of smart stuff with the script to point out that both groups are, despite their differences, basically the same: they both pull messed-up armed robberies at around the same time, for one thing.
That said, those armed robberies are also a sign of one of this film’s biggest comedy flaws. Rather than building our sympathies while bringing his characters closer to doing something despicable as Four Lions did – where the would-be terrorists are really just a threat to themselves right up until the final act – these guys swing between bungling dickheads and actual threats to those around them. Which messes up the comedy, as it’s hard for someone to go back to being a hilarious screw-up after a serious dramatic scene involving threatening an innocent party.
We’re not saying these tonal shifts aren’t intentional: Forsythe signposts his interest in that kind of violent swing from comedy to drama and back with a scene early on where the Lebanese crew visit a drug dealer (David Field) to get a gun. His mansion / drug den is exclusively staffed by fetishised Asian men, he’s depicted as a camp old queen who just happens to be randomly violent, and you’d be a lot more entertained re-watching the drug deal scene from Boogie Nights as this is basically a lift (tonally at least) from that only a whole lot worse.
What we are saying is that while there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, Down Under rarely manages to take that extra step to make it funny. The way the older characters here are the ones who facilitate the violence without participating? That’s an interesting thing to say. The way these scenes fail to be funny in any substantive way? Yeah, that’s a problem.
And it’s not like it isn’t trying. This is packed with gags, and on occasion they even work – while every single “shock twist” reveal is painfully obvious, often the riffing that follows will cough up some quality laughs. The film’s structure even suggests the ideal format for this material: a series of comedy sketches about these different yet similar dickheads where we check in on them for 90 seconds or so as they hoon around, get a decent laugh, and move on. Because there really isn’t enough comedy here for a feature film.
Look, if you find lots and lots of swearing hilarious, this is a gold mine. Jokes like “these muslims don’t respect our women [answers phone] what’d ya want ya fuckin’ slut?” aren’t exactly thin on the ground either. And as for violent gangs roaming the streets looking for someone to bash while “ironic” pop tracks play – including the Dawson’s Creek theme – well, this should satisfy all your needs and more because it happens at least a half dozen times here.
But where Four Lions said “hey, terrorists are people – often stupid people, but people”, which is a controversial stance to take even today, what is Down Under trying to say? That the people behind the Cronulla riots were idiots – not regular folks but obvious, near-Housos-level dickheads of a kind no-one watching would identify as – but also that there were idiots on both sides so hey “grew here not flew here” types relax because you’re only part of the problem? And even in a film entirely about a world full of dickheads isn’t having only one female character – a shrieking pregnant bogan – kind of sketchy?
Also VAGUE SPOILER but the moment at the film’s climax where a main character is killed off in maybe five seconds in a wacky comedy accident is a pretty big bum note – it happens so fast it’s hard to take in, it happens off-camera so it’s hard to even know what happened, and considering the role the character’s played in the film as one of the few sensible ones this zany bungling death (again, off-camera so there isn’t even a visual joke there) doesn’t really work on any level.
If you’ve ever wanted proof that comedy is harder to get right than drama, this is the film for you. If this material had been turned into a straightforward drama, it… well, there would have been problems, sure. But it’s when this is being basically dramatic – or occasionally when it lets the comedy arise naturally from the material (like when the white guys are trying to explain they’re only bashing Lebs tonight, not Asians or any other race) – that it comes together as something worthwhile.
“Fuck”, on the other hand, isn’t really the set-up for or the punchline to a joke.