What’s that you say? We’re experiencing a golden age of Australian cinematic comedy? This we had to see for ourselves – and so we spent our Saturday watching not one but two Australian feature-length comedy films currently screening in cinemas. Shouldn’t the non-awaited third film in Paul Fenech’s Housos trilogy be out by now as well? Guess you can have too much of a good thing.
To be fair, The Dressmaker probably doesn’t exactly count as a “comedy” – we sure didn’t laugh much – but it is a prime example of the kind of broad-strokes comedy material that used to dominate Australian cinema right up until The Castle was actually funny. If you’re lucky you got Muriel’s Wedding; if you weren’t, you got Welcome to Woop Woop. Either way the general feeling was of watching a comedy made by people who were the kind of loud dickheads you ran away from at dinner parties.
The Dressmaker (which stars Kate Winslet as a French-trained Aussie dressmaker who returns to her 50s-era shithole small town to wreak revenge on the local freaks by… making dresses) is actually not half bad as a movie – that’d be largely thanks to a bunch of good performances and a story that, in a rarity for Australian film, actually keeps moving forward – but as a comedy we’re back to the collection of grotesques that our film-makers (as opposed to comedians) think are sure-fire laugh getters.
For fuck’s sake, this movie actually features an evil hunchback who gets his komedy kumuppance because once he starts running he can’t stop. Plus Shane Bourne plays a drug-rapist. And Hugo Weaving plays the local cop who also wears a full matador outfit because he’s flamboyant. Tonally it’s all over the shop which kind of works dramatically but as a comedy it’s a big old mess. It’ll probably be the biggest locally made hit of the year: no-one ever seems to go broke making comedy for people who need to be told when and where to laugh.
Now Add Honey, on the other hand, is made by people who actually have a decent recent track record in comedy: Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope, aka Gristmill, the team behind The Librarians and Upper Middle Bogan. The premise here is kind of involved; the short version is that a surprise family reunion goes wrong when L.A. glam stage mother Beth (Portia de Rossi) is arrested for drug possession, leaving her sister, down-to-earth but high-strung lawyer Caroline (Butler), stuck with Beth’s daughter, teenage international superstar Honey (Lucy Fry). Much fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue.
It’s a fairly straightforward premise but the film stumbles around for a while putting everything in place. There’s a third sister (Lucy Durack) and her engagement subplot that goes nowhere but does provide an excuse to have Hamish Blake (who plays her fiancée) in the film; Caroline’s husband is sleeping in the spare room and spending nights “at the office” but she’s too busy to notice; her older daughter has both teen problems and teen sass while her younger one is obsessed with the “Monkey Girl” character that’s made Honey a star. Plus Angus Sampson is a sleazy paparazzi lurking in the bushes outside. If that sounds kind of crowded, that’s because it is.
Gristmill’s sitcoms have all tended to have strong premises which were largely ignored in favour of character-based work. But in a sitcom you have the time to explore your characters; here with such a large cast pretty much everyone ends up having some big motivation that’s kind of glossed over. Caroline is yet another of Butler’s trademark stressed-out characters, if not as hyper-ventilating as the one she played in The Librarians. Yet despite her stressed-out nature being exactly the kind of issue we expect to be solved in a movie, here the cause is touched on once (she brought up her sisters after their mother’s death) and never dealt with. In another kind of movie this matter-of-fact approach would be praise-worthy – what’s done is done and we have to move forward in our lives – but in a comedy it feels like a thread left dangling.
Culture-clash stories are a comedy staple because no-one needs to think much about what’s happening and so all the effort can be put into the jokes. She’s from L.A., they’re from Melbourne, in the end she makes their lives a bit more glamorous and they bring her a bit more down to earth. But here we get a third act that’s all about the dangers of sexualising children (Beth wants Honey to transition out of kid’s entertainment via a sleazy music video and sexy photo shoot while Caroline does not approve) and why society says some kinds of bodies are fine to look at while others are seen as gross. It’s slightly funnier than it sounds, promise.
Teenagers acting sexy when they’re not prepared for the consequences – which here would be “Angus Sampson” – is a real issue, but it’s not an issue that is unique to glammed-up L.A. TV stars. So there’s really two stories here that only kind of overlap: how do you deal with a movie star in your suburban home, and how do you deal with a teen who’s under pressure to be overtly sexual before she’s ready for it. You could make a decent comedy out of either one; cramming them both into 100 minutes results in a bit of a mess.
Presumably the idea was meant to be that a): things would start out as a family dealing with this alien creature dropped into their midst, b): eventually they’d realise she was just like them then c): discover she had her own big problem she was dealing with and they’d band together to help her out. But there’s so much crammed into the first and second acts – we didn’t even mention the drug rehab stuff, or the failed marriage stuff, or the “you kissed the boy I liked” stuff, or Honey’s US agent, or Angus Sampson in the bushes, or the TV celebrity chef – that it all gets a little muddled. And a muddled story is the enemy of comedy – or at least, a guy that owes comedy money.
That said, unlike The Dressmaker this does contain a number of actually funny scenes. Butler can do “exasperated” in her sleep and get laughs, Blake is a constant scene-stealer (to be fair to everyone else, all he has to do in every scene he’s in is get laughs) and everyone else is extremely good at both the drama and the comedy. Well, maybe not Sampson, but he’s stuck playing a cartoon character. And Fry is playing a character that has to go from a broadly drawn caricature to a a real-life scared girl, which would be a big ask for anyone so it’s no big surprise that her scenes can be a bit all over the place.
Taken alongside The Dressmaker, we have here the two extremes of Australian movie comedy: one is a movie that works as a movie but isn’t all that funny, the other is funnier but doesn’t really hold together as a movie. Being funny is the hard part, but Australian comedians who stumble out the gate never get a second chance to make a film so we never get to see if they have a really good film in them.
Sadly, despite having some decent laughs, Now Add Honey just isn’t that good a film.