I wish I was better at describing this. But there is something ineffably fascinating about New Zealand humour. I’m not sure when I first noticed it, perhaps when my attention was first drawn to John Clark and his Fred Dagg creation or it may have been as long ago as the days when I heard there was a TV show, produced around the time when popular things included shows with names like “That’s Incredible!” “Unbelievable Things!” etc. The real titles have been lost. The Kiwis however came up with “That’s Fairly Interesting” No exclamation mark was needed.
Since then there has been Peter Jackson’s early stuff followed by the guys, seemingly all in the same loose group, who made Flight of the Conchords, Boy, Eagle Vs Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and no doubt many more. I haven’t seen Thor Ragnarok but I cant believe Taika Waititi wouldn’t have brought at least a modicum of self-deprecation to that project. I just wasn’t curious enough to find out.
|Jackie van Beek, Madeleine Sami|
The Breaker Upperers
Which brings me to The Breaker Upperers a movie with the same little bit of soul to be discovered in the other titles listed. The same comic imperatives are also on display - self-deprecation, seriousness over the most minor things, beautifully timed readings of the script, jokes from and at the sidelines. Not so good on set pieces like the supermarket scene at least until the two women have to share their secrets with the cashier. Not that there haven’t been some sort of equivalents here - the TV sketch from our own days of “Fast Forward” and its predecessors and successors, right through Frontline, The Castle, The Dish, The Hollow Men, Kath and Kim and Utopia. That was a group too. But none ever got/get quite down to the quotidian ordinariness of the characters that the New Zealanders put on display in ways which make the Dardenne Brothers stabs at realism look utterly confected.
At the preview I went to, a dozen or so people max, and not a good place to test out public humour, there were laugh aloud moments. Not so many. I suspect there were many more at the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival, an evening known for its tolerance such that even Joe Wright’s deeply abysmal Hanna back in 2011 (a dual triumph of the Worst Opening Night and the Worst Film Ever Screened at the Sydney Film Festival) got a polite round of applause at the end.
But the humour in The Breaker Upperers is trivial, though minimalised by its quick fire 85 minutes, strung out even that far by a Bollywood ending. Definitely not a film which is going to replace A Dog’s Life or Trouble in Paradise or Mr Jolly Lives Next Door amongst the great comedies of all time. In fact, Mr Jolly,with its viciousness and its inevitable focus on the British class system, serves as the Alpha title in the select group of movies about ratbags that film-makers and scriptwriters insert into other people’s lives for the sake of the sheer mayhem that ensues. Think Boudu Saved from Drowning as another quality example.
So… should we wonder why such trivia kicks off a Sydney Film Festival, even if it is essential New Zealand humour. The festival will eventually be screening films by Kiarostami, Kaurasmaki, Xu Bing, Ceylan and Panafi et al.