Ben Elton’s something of a strange figure in Australian comedy, in that despite living here off-and-on for the last twenty years he’s never actually become part of Australian comedy. He’s set books here, he’s made one rapidly cancelled television program here, but otherwise he’s generally avoided the panel shows, comedy game shows, radio chats, newspaper columns, stand-up performances and so on that make up the Australian “comedy scene”. It’s hard not to have the opinion that for Elton, Australia is where he lives, not where he works. Which is probably why Three Summers, his Aussie-as big screen debut as an Aussie film-maker, seems a little bit… odd.
To be fair, some of that strangeness comes from the fact that it’s an unashamedly mainstream Australian comedy in 2017; it’s been a very long time since we saw an Australian comedy that wasn’t about characters we were meant to be laughing at, not with – and when we did get a local comedy that was all about having a rollicking good time it was almost always shithouse. So while we might have a bunch of negative things to say, the closest thing to Three Summers we’ve seen lately was Spin Out so if we were grading like against like it’d be five stars no worries. Put another way, Three Summers contains actual jokes, some of which are actually funny; that’s not something we can afford to laugh at.
Oh right, the story: every year in rural West Australia a folk festival is held. People come from all around to camp out and listen to various kinds of folk music. Some of these people are thinly sketched one-joke characters, others – most notably an Irish pub singer and the theremin playing soloist whose slow burn romance is the heart of the film – are thinly sketched one-joke characters who get more screen time. Over the course of three summers people learn (that racism is bad), they grow (into people who don’t like intolerance), and occasionally they turn up to a concert where a band of Afghani refguees give an opening spiel that’s basically “we come to you from a violent place with no music, a brutal land where freedom is a foreign concept. We call it hell, but it’s not our homeland – it’s an Australian detention centre!” Take that, Thatcher… uh, Turnbull.
Mainstream Australian comedy films aren’t usually associated with political activism, though The Castle famously references Mabo and Crackerjack was designed to demonstrate that Australia didn’t have to be a country where the old were pitted against the young. By the way, how Aussie is this film? It only stars Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton, Deborah Mailman, Peter Rowsthorn, Jacqueline McKenzie and John Waters. It’s almost as if Elton had something to prove.
Anyway, this is extremely right-on in a very leftie way. Sure, on some level most Australians know that the way we treat asylum seekers is barbaric, the rift between white and Aboriginal Australia is pretty deep, and old people are racist as all hell, but usually our movies are too busy going on about how hot incest is to have time to bluntly spell out our social ills again and again and again. Elton is an old, old hand at comedy so he knows to mix the preaching in with a bunch of jokes – some of which are actually not bad – but this is still a film with a lot to get off its chest. It’s almost kinda sorta justified story-wise thanks to being set at a folk festival packed with greenies, but it’s still hammer-subtle at the best of times.
Aside from that… actually, it’s really hard to look aside from that, because everything else here is extremely forgettable. The romance is stock standard, the characters are all cliches, their development is utterly predictable, the three summers gimmick is a bit uneven (the first summer takes up more than half the film) and while the film’s best jokes are at the expense of right-on attitudes those same attitudes lead to some fairly blunt moments that are well meaning but not exactly understated.
And by that we mean, this is a film where Michael Caton plays an old racist who ends up doing an traditional Aboriginal dance to express his solidarity with the Stolen Generation. And yet this is still probably the funniest Australian film of the year. Because it’s the only Australian comedy film of the year! Sorry, that one where the teen boy and his dad both compete to bone the same quirky stranger doesn’t count.