Swinging Safari: Stephan Elliott’s cringe-worthy romp through the ’70s
Swinging Safari is a boisterous, high energy watch that delights itself in celebrating the grotesque, kitsch and excessive. Brash Aussie humour and entirely game performances ensure there is incredible fun to be had with Elliott’s latest.
A cultural shift occurred in Australian cinema in the early 1990s. A trio of future classics appeared celebrating all that was theatrical, outrageous and unashamedly crass in the national character.
Admittedly, Edna Everage had got there first but this amounted to a wholehearted endorsement. First came Strictly Ballroom in 1992, followed by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding two years later.
Each of these films went on to spawn a stage musical but no film since has quite reached their dizzy high camp peaks – which doesn’t mean that film-makers have stopped trying. Priscilla’s director, Stephan Elliott, is back on the case with Swinging Safari, an autobiographical effort set during his 1970s childhood. I hope that at least some of it is fiction. If not, it’s a miracle that he got out alive.
His alter ego, 14 year-old Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb) lives in a sleepy Gold Coast town, where his possession of a movie camera ensures his popularity with the other kids. He’s obsessed with disaster movies and he has found an agile stunt man in his friend, Gerome (Jesse Denyer), who’s willing to try just about anything short of being set on fire – a reservation they discover only through trial and error, the error being near-fatal.
None of these exploits have come to the attention of Jeff’s parents, Gale (Asher Keddie) and Bob (Jeremy Sims), who have other preoccupations.
Bob is consumed with his hobby, playing the organ, and his job as a sales rep for the inexhaustively inventive gadgetry company, K-Tel, while Gale has her tennis and her friendship with the neighbourhood’s trendsetters, Rick and Jo Jones (Julian McMahon and Radha Mitchell). The Joneses are wealthy with a house big enough to accommodate her wig collection and his ego.
And at the other end of the street – and the social pecking order – are the Halls, Keith and Kaye (Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue). Once a golden couple, they have now fallen on hard times. He scrapes a living selling Funk & Wagnall encyclopaedias and she drinks. But he, too, cherishes his connection to the Joneses.
It’s easy to go along with Elliott while he arranges the furniture and accessorises his characters. The bell bottoms, shag pile conversation pit and a stretchy all-in-one bodysuit bravely worn by Sims all help to keep you entertained for the film’s first half. The costume designer is Lizzy Gardiner, who scored an Oscar for her work on Priscilla and, it turns out, grew up in Elliott’s neighbourhood.
And for some of us, there’s great nostalgia value in the film’s comprehensively detailed depictions of a day at the beach complete with home comforts and sand-coated gourmet treats.
This crowd favours KFC and cask wine and once the sunblock has been applied, they settle down to enjoy both while their kids concentrate on trying to drown or sting themselves half to death by stamping on bluebottles. And all the while, Jeff goes on filming.
The trouble starts when things get half-serious. The half bit is the problem. Because Elliott isn’t remotely interested in the concept of subtlety, he lacks control over the film’s tone and things frequently switch all too suddenly. That from merely cynical to the totally cringe-worthy.
The catalyst comes when their beach makes headlines for the first time in the population’s collective memory. Because a massive blue whale has become stranded there and begun to die. Nobody in town knows what to do about it. Once they’ve become bored with posing for photographs in front of it, they cease to care. The only one who does is Jeff’s friend, Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson). Who’s already shaken up by inadvertently catching sight of her parents. Their friends indulging in a night of spouse-swapping.
Her dearest wish is to leave home and never have to see them again, an impulse which I found to be perfectly understandable. The only one who gets the chance to move beyond the bounds of caricature is Sims. And after Elliott had gone on cranking up the crassness to a point well beyond its capacity to amuse, I, too, had had enough.
Rating: R (for sexual content, language and some underage drinking)
Genre: Art House & International, Comedy
Directed By: Stephan Elliott
Stars: Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Jesse Denyer
Written By: Stephan Elliott
In Theaters: Jun 21, 2019 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Jun 21, 2019
Runtime: 97 minutes
Studio: Blue Fox Entertainment
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR SWINGING SAFARI
Elliott whizzes from montage to sight gag to flashbacks and flash-forwards, skittering sideways for frequent discursions about the family pets, or a disastrous incident with a beach umbrella.
The trouble starts when things get half-serious. The half bit is the problem.
Is this outrageous comedy sexy or revolting? Elliott proves – though this feels like the least of his achievements – that a film can be both.
In the end, what Swinging Safari lacks in the story is made up in originality and a satisfying art direction.