Movies, like many things in life, have seasons. Sometimes it’s the season for expensive yet stupid blockbusters; at other times of year cinemas are full of prestige arty projects. But this particular time of year is the school holidays, and that’s really all you need to know about the latest all-Aussie film to hit the big screen, Spin Out. It may be full of characters above the age of consent drunkenly partying in some lawless free-fire zone where the only morality involves doing circle work in your ute, but at it’s heart it’s a kids movie.
Or just one that treats its audience like kids, it’s hard to tell the difference really.
The story is so simple we really should just stick a picture of the poster here because it doesn’t get more complex than that: there’s a bush ute muster which a lot of Aussie types are attending and shock twist, pretty much everyone in a relationship suddenly finds their relationship on the rocks. Time for everyone to win their partners back! Plus there’s some mildly suss big city types hanging around looking for a root and a woman is worried her boyfriend isn’t going to take well the news that her baby isn’t his baby, though considering he seems to be a professional beer drinker you’d think he’d be happy at the chance of avoiding fetal alcohol syndrome. Party!
It’s a decent enough set-up for laughs but in a brave move this doesn’t actually deliver any. It’s like the creative team – that’d be writer Tim Ferguson (The Doug Anthony All Stars), who co directs with Mark Gracie (You and Your Stupid Mate) were so keen to make a kid-friendly slice of all-Aussie adventure that they made a film full of events that technically look like comedy but lack the spark that turns a seemingly funny idea – hey, lets have a character go into a portaloo then have someone else throw a firecracker in so when he comes out he’s covered in shit – into something that actually is funny.
For example, the film opens with our two extremely attractive leads doing their synchronised ute stunt, only the guy takes it too far (using a brick and an occer strap to get his ute circling without human intervention) and it all goes HORRIBLY WRONG. By which we mean the ute starts making wider circles, the guy can’t get back inside, the brick falls off the accelerator and the ute gradually comes to a halt right before it would have crashed into her. On the one hand, it’s clearly a situation where we’re meant to think “phew, lucky that didn’t get out of hand”; on the other, having it get out of hand would have been funny and exciting.
The cast generally do a decent job so we can’t blame them, and the basic structure of the film is strong so the script works on that level at least. Part of the problem is that the film is simply too mild to get big laughs from the idea of a bunch of people getting massively drunk at a no-holds-barred party. This isn’t a film where the party gets crazier and crazier until the sheer over-the-top nature of events is the pay-off, and the one big moment towards the climax that seems like it was maybe meant to work that way – someone hooks a bunch of kegs up to a windmill to create a beer windmill, which is a windmill that sprays beer – is shit. Mark Gracie proved he’s not the guy for big visual gags with the notoriously rubbish ending of Takeaway, and things have not improved here.
Surprisingly though, this also is not a film where the characters are made fun of for cheap laughs. In fact, it bends over backwards to make sure that just about everyone is treated as a human being. The film’s occasional vomit jokes and the (only?) casual sex reference are limited to nameless supporting characters; even though this is a film featuring someone whose life seems to revolve around drinking record amounts of canned beer, a goth bouncer named Scary Mary and a trio of dropkicks who thought their girlfriends would be impressed by them joining the army, at worst they’re seen as well-meaning but silly. Even the evil city folk at the B&S Ball looking to steal our main characters away from each other aren’t really bad people. What the hell?
It doesn’t even hold up as a chance to check out a unique piece of Australian culture, as pretty much all the unique bits have been sanded off to make this as bland as possible. Of course, that’s in large part because the “uniquely Australian” elements of a ute muster / B&S Ball are the terrifying levels of alcohol consumption, the shockingly predatory behaviour from the blokes, the appallingly racist and sexist bumper stickers the ute owners display with pride, and numerous other elements that fall under “what happens in the bush stays in the bush”. That’s not a negative, mind you – this isn’t that kind of film and that’s a good thing. But if you’re going to take that stuff out, you need to put something else in.
And yet, this is a rare Australian comedy that gets pretty much everything right – or at least, doesn’t get too much wrong – apart from the comedy. You could argue with the choices the creative team have made, but they’re pretty much all legitimate choices that could have led to a decent film. All the characters have the depth and texture of a sheet of fairly expensive toilet paper; the film makes up for it by having close to a dozen featured cast members in a 90 minute film, so there’s no time to dig deep into their motivations and personal quirks. The stakes are low and the plot is predictable; again, by having so many stories taking place (and by constantly jumping between them) it at least feels like there’s a lot going on. Plus it’s a romantic comedy: predictability is what people want.
Thing is, they also want laughs. Perhaps Ferguson and Gracie set too many limits on themselves: it’s a comedy about a bunch of people at a big party, only the film doesn’t want to make fun of the people or the party. It often feels like a story told by a mate who keeps telling you what you’re hearing was hilarious at the time and then just trails off with “… I guess you had to be there”. And when the cinema next door is showing Blair Witch – or Sully, or Secret Life of Pets or Bridget Jones III – there’s just not that much of a reason to be there.
(also, why was this called Spin Out instead of Burn Out? Our days of hanging out with frankly terrifying “ute boys” are well behind us and thank fuck for that because presumably things have changed over the years but back when we knew people who went to B&S balls B&S balls sounded like drunken orgies where getting driven over in your sleeping bag was a 20% chance no matter where you put it. But back then people who drove utes did things like “burn outs” or “circle work” or occasionally “doughnuts” – no-one ever did a “spin out”.)