Let’s talk comedy; more specifically, international comedy. For little, misunderstood kids growing up in the South, it feels like we all had an outlet to express our humor when we found that ours didn’t fall under what was considered popular at the time. Some find solace in Japanese humor, or maybe British humor, but I found myself a little bit more down under with Australian comedy. From Muriel’s Wedding to Strictly Ballroom to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, there was always a sort of loving touch to Australian comedy films that made them far more touching than much of the slapstick humor that comes stateside. Don’t get me wrong, Australian comedy can be stupid, and it seems to flourish the more ridiculous it gets. To this day, I have never found another television show that has made me laugh more than Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High, somewhat ugly warts and all. Stephan Elliott, the filmmaker behind The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, returns to the world of Australian comedy with Swinging Safari, but without a decent stream of Australian comedies in the past few years, is there still enough to bring the magic that I fell in love with so long ago back?
Maybe not entirely, but damn it, it’s a pretty good start.
The place is Wallaroo, Australia, the time is the late ‘70s, and everyone is taking life as it comes at them. Free of the paranoic worries of the modern world, kids roam free, parents leisure to their heart’s content, and life is generally pretty damn good. Three families, intertwined by friendships, love, and a bit of pure hatred between the parents, find their way through the world one over-the-top conflict at a time. After having a go at swinging, the parents (Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue, Julian McMahon and Radha Mitchell, Jeremy Sims and Asher Keddie) find themselves at odds with each other, and their own children. Oh, and there’s a 200-ton whale that’s washed up on the beach, because that’s important, too.
It should go without saying with a main cast like this, but much of the payoff comes in the brilliant performances of its cast, headlined wonderfully by the parents. It’s easy to look at Pearce’s performance and decide that he’s the one carrying the film, but when examined a bit more closely, I found myself truly cackling the most with Mitchell’s performance as the vapid, yet tender Jo. Mitchell is mostly known for her roles in darker drama and horror films (her performance in Silent Hill is for the ages), so it was a bit surprising to see just how impressive her comedy chops were next to someone like Pearce, who has delivered quite a few comedic roles in the past to great avail.
There’s a real bite to Swinging Safari that you just don’t get with comedy films anymore, for better and for worse It sometimes greatly elevates the laughs and diminishes others in its less-than-stellar uses. There’s a sort of movement with the film that leads you to expect the worst of situations, even in times where a moment of levity feels a bit more called for, but when the laughs hit, Swinging Safari hits pretty hard.
Still, despite its focus on its comedy, there are a lot of sweet moments in Swinging Safari, mostly due to its coming-of-age story of Jeff (Atticus Wells) at its center. Its coming-of-age element isn’t as strong as films that put more of a focus on it than its comedy à la Lady Bird, Dope or Love, Simon, if only because it plays out far more pedestrian than any of the previously mentioned films. There’s still a tenderness with the characters and their relationships that still tugs at the heartstrings, even if much of the script overlooks this for the sake of pulling off more comedic bits, which in this case, the audience may be pretty content with. Swinging Safari is a comedy that doesn’t try to be a thousand things at once. It focuses on a few key elements and pulls them all off pretty successfully.
For such an intimate story, Elliott, like in his other films before this, places a large focus on the visuals, creating a subtle beauty. With its generally symmetrical, almost fantasy-like cinematography, and its over-the-top, pastel-bathed production design, such an atmosphere is created with this films that it lets you know exactly when and where in the world this film takes place without even telling you. That’s not just good filmmaking, that’s good storytelling.
Swinging Safari isn’t perfect, but it’s a blissfully fun step in the right direction for Australian comedy that hits its marks pretty accurately, even if its goals weren’t to reinvent the wheel. Bolstered by some wonderful performances and beautiful world-building, it does a lot to move the gaze away from some of the tonal shifts that leave a bit of a bad taste in your mouth and the moments when the characters lose their sense of likability for the sake of a brief chuckle. It’s a delicate balance that wobbles quite a bit in its middle-half but finds its stride again by the end. It’s a safe, but effective, comedy that approaches its material with a lot of love and respect for the craft of filmmaking, and if that doesn’t make for summer fun, I’m not completely sure what will.
In select theaters and on VOD June 21st, 2019.
Final score: 3.5 out of 5.