Le Petite Mort à L’arrivée

So Australian comedy actor Josh Lawson has turned writer-director and made a film called The Little Death. But how to get your small quirky comedy noticed in a cinema marketplace where half a dozen films from overseas debut every week? Maybe like this:

Why is Josh Lawson bashing Australian cinema? You’d think that a guy who’s leveraged his success in local television and film into prominent roles in American films like Anchorman 2 and television series like House of Lies would have some loyalty to the industry, but apparently not. Promoting his directorial debut, sex comedy The Little Death, Lawson has seemingly stumbled on a convenient marketing catch phrase – “If you are an Australian who doesn’t like Australian films, this is the film you should watch, because neither do I” – that he’s been throwing around in his interviews.

Unfortunately, the reviews once people actually saw it were more like this:

But how does The Little Death — Lawson’s first feature as writer and director — fare when it comes to walking the walk?

Let’s just say it ain’t got the legs.

As Lawson has pointed out, it is clear there are millions of movie misanthropes in our midst who’d rather stay home and wash their hair than go out and watch an Australian production.

However, The Little Death isn’t going to be the one that stops many of them reaching for the nearest shampoo bottle.

Which led to a result like this:

Josh Lawson’s The Little Death generated a tonne of media coverage and mostly favourable reviews after selling to the US and multiple other territories- so why haven’t Australian audiences been more aroused by the sexy comedy?

That question is being debated after the saga of the secret sex lives of five Sydney couples rang up $77,700 at 34 screens last weekend and $83,500 with previews.

Having seen it on this very tight-arse Tuesday, here’s our answer: it’s just not very good.

It’s basically a collection of lame sketches that’re only slightly better than The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, in that once they explain the basic set-up (they’re all based around couples with a specific fetish – one woman is turned on by her husband crying, another has a rape fantasy, a guy only gets turned on by his wife when she’s unconscious, etc) they just wander around for a while then fizzle out. Off the top of our heads, of the four main storylines two end in a pregnancy, one ends in marriage and one in divorce. They might be legitimate relationship milestones but they’re hardly surprising or funny.

The trouble with sketch comedy in this country for a long time now is that the old idea of “it’s too hard to come up with a punchline so getting out when you can is good enough” has mutated into “it’s too hard even developing an idea past the initial concept so… yeah”. A woman is turned on by her husband’s tears, so she comes up with ways to make him cry. That’s it. It just escalates until it ends. No twists, no surprises – and even worse, no insights: what would it actually be like to only feel sexually attracted to the person you love when they were in actual distress? Don’t expect answers here – all we get is someone playing tricks on her partner over and over so she can get her rocks off (as the kids say).

(there’s a minor subplot about an old guy who goes around door-to-door handing out baked Golliwogs, then when everyone is distracted by nostalgia he informs them he’s a sex offender. It’s the same joke three times, then on the fourth appearance he arrives during a fight and says “I’ll come back later”. This is the kind of throwaway running gag that could work in a movie packed with rapid-fire jokes and cut down to a minute tops: when it’s a slow burn spread out over what feels like minute upon minute of dead air, you’re just wasting everyone’s time)

There’s been a bit of flack sent Lawson’s way for the rape fantasy storyline, but for us that was actually one of the more sensitively handled plots: how do you go about fulfilling your partner’s sexual fantasy when it goes against everything you believe in? Of course, the storyline doesn’t actually answer any of those questions and the resolution is a massive cop-out – basically, so long as he thinks he’s done a good job it’s all good, while her unfulfilled fantasy is basically filed under “I’ll just pretend I got what I wanted so we can move on with our lives” – but in and of itself it’s not handled offensively.

Mind you, it’s not handled funnily either.

As for Lawson slagging off Australian film in general, who can blame him? For the audience this is aimed at he’s probably right. But that’s like complaining that Australian film isn’t making enough sketch comedy movies so no wonder people aren’t going to the cinema any more because clearly sketch comedy is what the mainstream wants. If people want this kind of thing they can get it elsewhere and better: Australian film is, on the whole about the kind of stories people can’t get anywhere else. Usually because all the stories with mainstream appeal have been grabbed by television or overseas film.

So this kind of stuff from the producers is a big load of crap:

“There is no doubt that we have a brand issue here, and what we’ve seen is a few key critics dig the boot in and causing a great deal of harm in an environment where our product needs nurturing,” Hilton said, “especially when we have a film that could break out and resonate with audiences. If we were reviewed 4 or 5 stars across the board and people still didn’t come, we could have pointed to a brand issue, unfortunately that’s not the case here.

“This film is for audiences, it’s not an ‘important’ story with serious message, it’s a comedy. And it’s the only thing a comedy needs to be, hilarious. What’s most disappointing about the soft opening is that the film works. We’ve seen it work for 90 minutes, every time we play to a full theatre.

Yeah, good luck getting those full theatres now. Because whatever this film is, unless you’re someone who giggles at the word “rape”, it sure as shit ain’t hilarious.

Still, we’re talking about a director who, when faced with criticism, responds with “how many films have you made, champ?” The real problem with film-making in this country is that we have a shitload of directors and producers who don’t seem to understand that perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to actually spend a few bucks on a script editor so they didn’t end up filming something that was arse.

Going by his first film, Lawson is a halfway decent director and the cast is pretty sharp across the board. But the script is an aimless mess, congratulating itself on its bravery for discussing sexual fetishes while having nothing of interest to say about them. Making a bland film aimed at an imagined white middle-class Australian mainstream isn’t breaking new ground, or giving the people what they want. If you want to do that and you’re making a comedy, maybe you might like to start with a couple of decent jokes.


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  • Bernard says:

    Maybe it’s a psychological reaction where audiences are still so traumatized from ‘Any Questions For Ben?’ that they’ve tuned out Josh Lawson.

    Normally the trailers for Oz movies are shit, and make the movies look like lame indie melodramas, but the trailer for The Little Death isn’t that bad. Not great mind you, but not awful.

    Maybe Oz audiences have finally given up on all Oz movies. There has been a spectacular trail of failures in recent months. Every few weeks another Oz movie flops, and everyone wrings their hands and asks why. Usually it’s because the movie is about heroin addicts, incest and Aboriginal lesbian petrol sniffers.

  • Yeps says:

    I just wish someone would make at least one Australian film about a small time crook, with a heroin addiction and a doomed romance, who lives through a series of short, seedy, and arbitrary events that force me to consider the futility of life. Also, if it could be slow-paced, charmless and set in some grungy urban enclave in Melbourne, that would be great.

    Then at least I’ll know that the filmmakers did at least one first-year subject at uni. And that is, after all, the magic of cinema, isn’t it?

    Seriously though, how f**king hard can it be just to make a good script?! Really? Every year the industry wrings its hands and whines about ‘small budgets’ and getting ‘drowned out’ by the overseas blockbusters, and yeah, that no doubt sucks for the people who have to monitor market trends and chart demographics and drum up the funds to get anything in this country made, but a scan of our most popular films of the past reveals that budgets and big names have f**k all to do with a movie’s success.

    ‘The Castle’ looks like it was made on a budget of about $57 and a cheese platter for catering; ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ is a road movie. A road movie! As was ‘Mad Max’.

    The history of Australian film is littered with successes that place characters, writing, and a distinct visual style front and center. God help us, even Baz Luhrmann, just for having some flair, managed to do something with nothing (personally I’d rather stab myself than watch it again, but it is beloved by many others).

    And yet the majority of filmmakers here seem to repeatedly mistake ‘low-budget’ for ‘well we better make it arty’ and try to go all smug and sombre and visually washed-out. Look: there’s a big of rusted corrugated iron, symbolising our country’s gradual descent from innovative pioneers to tired stagnation! Look, there’s a character mired in a state of amoral ennui! Gee, he must be deep and deserving of an AFI award. Look: a swirl of dust, lit by the sunset, in slow-mo, out on the horizon! Seems ominous, right? This series of disconnected events must be meaningful, huh?

    …Wait, where are you viewers going?

    Even ‘Babe’, which, yes, obviously also had some cash thrown at it for the cgi, lived and died on character – and was goddamned adorable.

    So given the clear track-record, why do we keep trying to go down the same beaten path? Is it a funding thing? Do films really only get money from the government if they promise to cram some mood-killing, grim ‘social commentary’ in? Why do we keep remaking the same dour films based on stories that if you heard someone telling them at a dinner party would make you roll your eyes and mutter ‘pretentious arse’ under your breath.

    I guess, good on Lawson for at least trying to colour outside the lines, but if you’re replacing one undercooked handful of cliches for another (less inexplicably attractive heroin junkies! more directionless sketch-show fare!), then really it’s not evolving anything, it’s just serving up a different flavour of bland.

    Screw it. Where’s my copy of ‘Babe 2: Pig in the City’? It might be completely mental, but bland it ain’t.

  • Yeps says:

    By the way, when I cite Baz Luhrmann I am only referencing ‘Strictly Ballroom’. I have a psychological self-defense mechanism that block from my mind anything he made after ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I don’t really think that has been the case for a while now. They’ve been a couple attempts the last few years to appeal to the masses which includes blockbusters like the Frankenstein movie, comedies like Fat Pizza and that movie Helliar stared in and dramas like TWTWB and children’s movies like Red Dog (which succeeded to an extent). I don’t mind movies about ‘Aboriginal lesbian petrol sniffers’ as long as they’re good. But in Australia it doesn’t matter if they’re commercial or arthouse they both tend to be shit.

    It’s weird that a country which has actors, directors and other technical staff succeed overseas as well as the infrastructure to make movies with high production values simply cannot make (write) compelling ‘Australian’ stories.

  • Bernard says:

    Exactly! Don’t forget that Bryan Brown has to turn up in the story at some point and randomly call everyone a “fucken prick”. And there needs to be a shot of the Flinders Rangers somewhere too.

    We don’t seem to be able to hit that middle ground. Just about every time the industry decides to fund something different (ie. not about junkies) we end up with Save Your Legs, A Heartbeat Away or Any Questions For Ben? The industry then retreats, and thinks, “Well, those big (relatively) budget popular movies flopped, so it’s back to the $1 million movies about junkies. At least they are cheaper to produce, so when they inevitably flop, I won’t lose my job at [insert name of funding body].”

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Yeah, in recent years there has been a pretty strong push towards making loads more “mainstream” Australian films. There’s a bit of a lag perception-wise with audiences though, largely (it seems) because the mainstream films haven’t been pulling a crowd.

    It’s tricky because obviously people should make whatever the hell they want to and it’s not like one “arty” film means one “mainstream” film won’t get made. It seems to be (in part) that just as the Australian film industry has realised we need to make more films with wider appeal, we’ve come up short as far as people who can actually do a good job of it.

  • Bernard says:

    Actually, there was a scene in Red Dog where Koko (the dog) turns to prostitution to support his heroin habit, but the producers wisely left it out of the theatrical release. It probably would’ve scared the kiddies. That scene is in the Director’s Cut on the DVD.

  • pete hill says:

    The biggest weakness with Australian films has always been with the writing. We can turn out world-class actors, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, producers, you name it. But we just can’t find enough decent writers. Considering how long many film projects take to get financing, there isn’t enough time to produce a decent script-excuse does not wash. And sometimes budget, or rather lack thereof, is an issue. The 2006 film ‘Kokoda’ would have been vastly improved with a decent budget as the plan was to tell the story from a wider perspective but the small budget forced the script writers to resort to the worn-out ‘lost patrol behind enemy lines’ plot which has been a staple of low-budget war movies since the 1930s.