In his review of Kath & Kimderella (available here), TripleJ film reviewer Marc Fennell says the film “has no jokes”. He is wrong. Not wrong in a “oh, it’s just a matter of opinion you guyse” way. Wrong in an easily proven, factual, obvious way. Fennell is wrong to claim Kath & Kimderella contains no jokes, and he’s wrong in a way that suggests we should perhaps start to be concerned about the state of his eyesight*.
Now to be fair, if he’d said “Kath & Kimderella has no jokes that work“, that’d be an opinion he could back up. Well, actually he wouldn’t have to, because it’d just be his opinion. But to claim this film flat-out has no jokes – look, here’s one: the rear-projection during a crap car chase is so amazingly dodgy no-one watching the screen could take it seriously (hey, we didn’t say it was a good joke, though it did get a laugh from us) – is yet another reason why, when it comes to comedy, Australian film reviewers generally have about as much of a clue as Australian television reviewers.
[cue forty-five minute rant about The Green Guide’s Paul Kalina calling Lowdown “gentle” twice in this week’s edition. Tho to be fair, while “gentle” and “comedy” belong nowhere together, it does get across the idea that Lowdown isn’t all that funny]
Fennell does get one thing right in his review: he talks about the way people bring different (meaning “bigger”) expectations to the cinema than they do turning on the television. Which, when it comes to action and drama and pretty much everything else, is true (kinda: if someone makes a movie as good as a good episode of, say, Mad Men, a lot of people would be pretty happy with that). But when it comes to comedy, whatever the audience expectation of a “movie” might be, a comedy movie simply has to do the exact same thing a television show does: make you laugh. In fact, the big big problem Australian film comedy has – and hoo boy, are we looking forward to Mental – is this idea that because it’s on the big screen it has to go BIG.
Think of the film comedies that have worked – as in connected with audiences, not necessarily been critically acclaimed – in Australia: The Castle. Crackerjack. Muriel’s Wedding. These are small-scale, naturalistic, character-based stories. Because small-scale character-based comedies are more often what people laugh at** – not the massively over-the-top, scream at the viewer for 90 minutes, manic laff riot capital-M movies that professional film-makers make when they try to be funny in this country.
While we’re laying down the law here, we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: polish is almost always the enemy of comedy. The urge to make something look polished runs counter to the urge to make something seem funny. Comedy is either spontaneous or seems that way; something slick and polished almost always seems laboured over. In that respect, Kath & Kimderella is the anti-Any Questions For Ben. Ben was a film so polished and trying to look cool it didn’t have room for jokes: Kath & Kimderella is slipshod and daggy as hell but really packs the jokes in.
The upshot? Reviewers that claim Kath & Kimderella is crap because it’s sloppy, or it’s all over the place, or it feels thrown together, or it looks cheap, or it’s erratic or uneven, or it features broad performances, or it isn’t a “real movie” or is just “the worst movie of the year” or whatever: they’re wrong. For a serious drama, sure, those things are big negatives. For a comedy, they can often be a big plus. If you’re reviewing a comedy, review it as a comedy. It’s trying to make you laugh: that’s a good place to start.
All that said, Kath & Kimderella is far, far from perfect. Gina Reilly and Jane Turner’s suburban stereotypes first appeared on sketch show Big Girl’s Blouse in 1994 in a parody of a wedding reality show, and even the first series of Kath & Kim had a mockumentary approach and overall story arc that went some way towards structuring what was otherwise little more than a bunch of funny fights and sharp suburban observations. But since then the characters have pretty much been adrift – still funny in their own right, but with no growth or development either in their situations or their relationships.
On the plus side Kath & Kimderella does addresses this problem: Turner’s Kath and Reilly’s Kim (plus Madga Szubanski’s Sharon) head off to the tiny fictional Spanish outpost of Papilloma on the heel of Italy***, thus providing a new setting. There Kath is preyed upon by local king Javier (Rob Sitch) as Kim and Sharon clump about being spied upon by the masked prince (Erin Mulally), thus providing new characters for them to interact with.
On the minus side, these developments are not improvements. Papilloma is a generic “foreign” country where starving peasants and 80’s disco are the main attributes so there’s no comedy to be had there, and while Rob Sitch is clearly the finest comedy actor of his generation – within an extremely narrow performing range, mind you – he plays a generic sleazy type who’s not all that interesting. The magic of Kath & Kim is the interactions between Kath & Kim: in this film they’re barely seen together.
Taking them away from Fountain Lakes is also a misstep. It may be traditional for sitcoms to take their cast somewhere foreign and new for a big screen outing, but Kath & Kim wasn’t just about a bunch of characters like most sitcoms – it was about a bunch of characters defined by their setting. Kath & Kim anywhere but the outer suburbs is just the story of a mum and her bitchy daughter: more than anything else, it’s the layers of social observation about life in the outer suburbs that made it special.
The story is both a mess and strangely well-plotted, with some elements clearly foreshadowed while others are glossed over or forgotten (the entire subplot of King Javier being a repressive ruler sort of makes sense – Kath and Kim are going to liberate the oppressed! – but Sitch’s comedy King is just too likably sleazy to be a real bad guy). Again, for a comedy this isn’t automatically a bad thing: once something’s been milked of laughs, why keep it around? But this isn’t sure of what it needs to keep around and what it can discard.
For example, the film opens by introducing the characters and their relationships in what is basically a clumsy extended prologue. Why? The real story here begins with Kath winning the trip overseas, and everything we need to know – Kath being married to Kel (Glenn Robbins), Kim having split from Brett (Peter Rowsthorn), Kath being a doting mum getting on with her life, Kim being her spoilt brat daughter – could have easily been gotten across in a line or two rather than a five minute prologue. It’s like Turner and Reilly (who wrote the script) lack confidence in their ability to reveal character by action rather than explanation – they tell us everything when it’d be funnier to show us.
So considering we did laugh at least some of the time, what does work? At least some of the jokes, for starters. Pretty much the entire cast is rolled gold – Richard E Grant has a great line in eye-rolling, Marg Downey has fun reprising her dodgy therapist and Mick Molloy appears in footage that probably comes from the TV series – while Robbins’ naked arse once again makes an appearance for those keeping score. The very idea of Sitch and Robbins having a swordfight is hilarious for those of a certain comedy vintage (even if the actual swordfight is hardly shown), and the cutaway moments following Reilly and Turner’s other creations Pru and Trude are always fun. Even the running joke about Sharon’s sexuality doesn’t feel overplayed.
More importantly, the daggy feel of the film suits the characters. A truly shithouse Kath & Kim movie would look and feel something like notorious Aussie arthouse snore-fest Somersault: sombre, serious, weighted down by pretensions and playing the mother-daughter conflict for drama over laughs. So while this is far, far from a perfect film – short review: if you’re a fan, wait for DVD – it remains faithful to the characters and their world. Even if this part of that world is a lot less funny.
As characters, Kath and Kim are well past their use-by date. As a send-off, they deserved better than this film. But it’s been diminishing returns for the “foxy morons” for a long time now, and ironically the way this film focuses on them as characters – seemingly we’re supposed to like them enough to want to see them even if they’re not really a double act and they’re no longer making fun of Australian suburbia, and going by the box office they’re right – signals the end of them as comedy characters. They’re celebrities now, and we all know how funny those guys are.
*Fennell’s full quote: “There are no jokes… or at least, ones that weren’t written in 2008”. Buh? Presumably he’s referencing the audioclip he plays that features a joke about the high price of bananas. Yes, that’s an old joke. No, that is not the only joke the film contains. Even given the time constraints of a short radio review, this is sloppy reviewing – seriously, the “worst thing” about this film according to Fennell is that it’s made all the characters so unlikable? Kath & Kim? When were they ever likable? Why have we had to put up with a decade of “should we be laughing at the suburban satire of Kath & Kim” questions if not for the fact that they don’t exactly come across as likable?
**Unless you have a gun comedy actor like Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell who can make a zany cartoon character-type character likable and fun. Number of these performers Australia currently has: 0
***more than one reviewer – no, it’s not just Fennell this time – has complained about this supposedly confusing and / or “stupid” set-up. News flash; it’s a joke. Specifically, wordplay – confusing the Spanish city Pamplona with Papilloma, which can mean a wart or wart-like growth, hence its position on the “heel” of Italy. It might not be funny, but it’s obviously a joke.