Blundering Around in the Dark

Being a film reviewer for The Age must be a thankless task (apart from all the free movies). Either you’re long-time reviewer Jim Schembri and have to live with the burden of being Jim Schembri, or you’re stuck being mentioned in the same breath as Jim Schembri. This week’s poor unfortunate: Jake Wilson, who somehow has managed to wrest the job of reviewing Australian comedy  I Love You Too (The Age, 1/5/10) out of Jim’s hands – Jim being something of a self-confessed comedy expert, having written for Totally Full Frontal and performed stand-up under the name ‘Jimbo’ – and managed to do a fairly poor job of it.

Let’s start at the start of Wilson’s effort: “Quick, who was the last Australian comedian to forge a viable career on the big screen? Nick Giannopoulos? Yahoo Serious? For a truly iconic success story you would have to go back to Paul Hogan – and that doesn’t look likely to change with the screenwriting debut of Peter Helliar, most recognizable as the burly sidekick from Rove”

To be fair to Wilson, he’s right about Hogan being an iconic comedy success in this county. Almost everything else: well… Firstly, “the last Australian comedian to forge a viable career on the big screen” was Mick Molloy with Crackerjack. It was a box office hit, it’s much more recent than the other examples mentioned and while Molloy’s follow-up Boytown tanked, so did  both the follow-up efforts from Giannopoulos (The Wannabes) and Serious (Reckless Kelly).

In fact, the only real difference between the trio of Molloy, Giannopoulos & Serious and comedy icon Paul Hogan is that Hogan’s first movie hit was so big a hit that he managed to get two crap sequels out of it; if you were to chart the drop-off between his first and second films, there’s a good chance his downwards career path would be exactly the same as the others’, only from a higher starting point.

And what about Kenny? That pretty much counts as a box office hit, even if star Shane Jacobson didn’t have a comedy career beforehand. Yeah yeah, ok, Wilson clearly just threw together a couple of quick examples to come up with an introduction to his review, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he got things wrong (ish). And the number one thing you want from a reviewer of any kind is a sense that they know what they’re talking about.  Otherwise, who gives a shit what they have to say?

[Yes, no-one gives a shit what Schembri has to say either. But that’s because these days he’s fallen into the habit of ending his reviews with blatant attempts to bait those who disagree with him such as “not for wowsers” (American Dad review, Green Guide, April 29th) or “detractors be damned” (Hey Hey it’s Saturday review, Green Guide, April 22nd ). Fingers crossed the haters get riled up enough to attack you on your blog Schembri – after all, every hit counts]

Aaand we’re back. Most of Wilson’s largely negative review is fair enough: he explains what he wants from the film and then points out the many ways in which it fails to deliver. You could argue that not everyone would go into a Peter Helliar comedy expecting “fresh insights into the alleged inarticulacy of Australian men”, but he’s perfectly within his rights to say it doesn’t deliver them.

So the reason for this extended and barely coherent attack on Wilson’s credentials as a comedy reviewer doesn’t come until this magic paragraph towards the end: “As the socially awkward Blake, Helliar might be trying to emulate Ricky Gervais’ comedy of embarrassment. But Gervais would rather die than beg for audience approval as nakedly as Helliar does in a toe-curling speech about waiting for a woman to recognize his ‘spark’.” Oh Good Fucking Lord, where to start.

Let’s assume for a second that Wilson – a film reviewer for the “quality” broadsheet in a city that likes to call itself Australia’s cultural capital – simply didn’t bother going to see Ricky Gervais’ film The Invention of Lying, in which the chubby funster shamelessly begs for audience approval throughout with seemingly endless speeches about how someone like him could never attract someone like love interest Jennifer Garner. Seriously, the entire film is full of naked pleas by Gervais – basically playing himself – for love and understanding. But maybe Wilson missed that one.

Considering Wilson knows how to spell Gervais name though, there’s a reasonable chance that he’s at least slightly familiar with a little TV series called The Office. And maybe he just might have heard about the final episode in the second series of that show – you know, the highly praised but desperately unfunny scene where David Brent gets the sack and literally begs for his job back. The only way that scene could have been a more naked beg for audience approval is if the words “BEG FOR AUDIENCE APPROVAL” had been lazer-printed across his forehead every time his eyes welled up with “oh God look at me I’m acting” tears:

Helliar might have been ripping off Gervais’ act (it sure looks like it in the trailers), but to claim that Gervais’ would never stoop to begging for audience approval is a display of bare-faced ignorance that’s both staggering and jaw-dropping. Plus it’s an example of the seemingly automatic and thoughtless holding up of Gervais as some kind of comedy genius that’s rife in this country despite the string of second rate duds churned out by Gervais since The Office. Or was Extras really better than The Office? And The Invention of Lying better than Extras? Nah, didn’t think so.

Next time you want to mention “comedy of embarrassment”, why not mention Larry David? Or Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge? Considering Curb Your Enthusiasm pre-dates The Office and does it all better, “Larry David’s comedy of embarrassment” is something that exists in the real world, not just the minds of various publicists pushing Gervais’ latest train-wreck.

Ok, after a minute’s thought it’s possible Wilson actually meant to write that Helliar was ripping off Gervais’ performance style. So why not just say that? Why use the term “comedy of embarrassment” to describe a kind of line delivery when it suggests a whole school of / approach to comedy – mostly because it is a school of comedy, done first and better by people (David, Coogan) who Age readers have certainly heard about? It’s not like Gervais is known as a subtle and varied actor, for fuck’s sake: once you mention his name, people know the kind of thing you mean.

Wilson is completely and totally within his rights as a reviewer to hate on a film that he hates. But his job isn’t just to grunt “good” or “bad” after the title is mentioned (that’s At The Movies’ job): he’s supposed to be able to convincingly explain what kind of film it is and how it does or doesn’t get its particular job done. These are minor quibbles raked over at excessive and somewhat creepy length here, sure, but get the little things wrong and it’s only fair to wonder if the big things (such as Wilson’s description of the film as “conspicuously short on narrative drive and tonally all over the place”) might be coming from a reviewer who doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

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