CONVERSATION pits, tanning oil, musk sticks … Stephan Elliott’s unapologetically vulgar ode to the ‘70s plays a bit like a feature-length flashback for those of us who grew up in the era.
Millennials — hooked as they are on retro culture — might also get a kick out of his wildly irreverent snapshot of a generation that embraced cask wine, polyester and Bozo punching dolls.
Set in a sleepy cul-de-sac somewhere in beachside suburbia, Swinging Safari tells the story of three fairly typical Australian families and the long, hot and very eventful summer a 200 ton whale washed up on their local beach.
The semi-autobiographical comedy — the film’s writer-director grew up in Dee Why — unfolds from the point of view of Jeff Marsh (newcomer Atticus Robb, who even looks a bit like a young Elliott).
When he’s not making slasher films with his daredevil best mate, the soulful adolescent tentatively pursues the romantic affections of his rather vulnerable neighbour Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson).
A complete mystery to her parents — Radha Mitchell, revealing a hitherto unsuspected flair for broad comedy, and Julian Mahon’s oily heath supplements entrepreneur — the complicated teenager is struggling with an eating disorder.
Relatively speaking, Jeff’s folks are a little more ordinary. While his tightly wound mum (Asher Keddie) shops and plays tennis, his sweet but ineffectual dad (Jeremy Sims) primarily works at keeping the peace.
Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue, reunited here for the first time since Neighbours, play the third couple, Keith and Kaye Hall, parents to three tearaway boys, the eldest of which is Jeff’s fearless stuntman.
Keith is a worn-around the edges encyclopaedia salesman. Kaye is a bitter drunk.
There’s a backstory here that might have rewarded further exploration but Elliott is too busy cracking jokes about Karen Carpenter diets and infants being “cooked” in baby oil to give the Halls his full attention.
The writer-director’s iconoclastic, at times even cruel, sense of humour inoculates the film against any cloying sense of nostalgia.
But while Elliott’s tendency to go that little bit too far is part of his appeal, it’s also what ultimately stops this good film from being great.
Beneath The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of the Desert’s glad rags, there was a genuine sense of pathos.
There’s a poignant undercurrent, too, in Swinging Safari (Sims’ reaction to the partner swapping “key party” from which the film takes its title is a good example).
But it’s less developed.
Swinging Safari is so crammed with in-jokes and memorabilia, the quieter moments are almost drowned out.
It’s as if Elliott is afraid to pause long enough to let his audience feel the emotional impact of his story.
But the film still offers movie goers a distinctive, exuberant, quintessentially Australian experience.
Swinging Safari opens on Thursday (January 18).
SWINGING SAFARI (M)
Three and a half stars
Director: Stephan Elliott
Starring: Asher Keddie, Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Radha Mitchell
Verdict : A whale of a time