Can “Swinging Safari” Revive The Great Australian Comedy?

Swinging Safari

“That’s when good neighbours become good friends.”

That’s a famous line from the Neighbours theme song, the night-time soapie that brought Kylie Minogue and Guy Pearce to Australia’s – and the world’s – attention.

Our prayers have been answered. Well, some people’s prayers. Minogue and Pearce have reunited — but they’re a long way from Ramsay Street. The former ‘80s icons star as a lush housewife shut-in and an encyclopedia salesman, nestled within a dysfunctional Gold Coast cul de sac in the 1970s, in Swinging Safari.

They’re joined by Julian McMahon, Radha Mitchel, Asher Keddie, and Jeremy Sims as a trio of married coastal suburbanites whose lackadaisical parenting skills are exceeded only by their bad taste in fashion, music, food, house décor, and recreational activities.

Swinging Safari

Swinging Safari (formerly known as Flammable Children) is set amid a world of shag carpeting, leisure suits and caftans, linoleum flooring and plastic carpet runners, fondu, funnel web spiders in the swimming pool, KFC surfboards, Gough Whitlam, and wearing ice-cream tubs on your head to protect from swooping maggies (somehow Australia’s favourite bird in case you’ve forgotten).

It’s a coming-of-age tale of the kids whose parents’ friendships splinter apart across one heated summer after an ill-advised game of key swap swinging.

It’s vulgar and absurdly over-the-top. It’s also really funny and a surprisingly refreshing summer tonic during Oscar season where movies are far likelier to be important and stoic and definitely do not usually feature scenes wherein Guy Pearce struts about the beach with an erection or Jack Thompson blows up a blue whale with dynamite.

Where Have All the Comedies Gone?

Where does a film like Swinging Safari fit into the contemporary Australian film landscape? Director Stephan Elliott came to prominence with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994 and promptly fell out of prominence with the bizarre, violently foul-mouthed and visually repulsive Welcome to Woop Woop three years later.

He’s spent much of his time since curbing his obvious love of chaotic vulgarity (typically in international productions), but I’m thankful he’s back.

It feels appropriate that Elliott, the creator of the funniest Aussie movie of all time – and an Oscar-winning one at that – should feel like a saviour of local comedy in cinemas. It has remarkably been more than two years since Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker became one of the most successful and beloved Australian films of all time, and I can only hope that that absence of big-screen comedies isn’t a sign of something more insidious within the nation’s funding organisations – Priscilla was initially refused funding by the nation’s chief film finance body after being labelled “racist”, “sexist”, and “deeply shallow” – and rather just a tell-tale sign of the very long and arduous path to film production in Australia.

Since The Dressmaker, 2016 and 2017 were dire for Australian comedy, with only a handful of comedic titles receiving a theatrical release. You would be forgiven, for instance, for not even knowing about the existence of A Few Less Men, the sequel to Elliott’s 2011 hit A Few Best Men that made only 3% of its predecessor’s box office (Elliott did not return for the hideously-reviewed follow-up). Only Ali’s Wedding made an impression, while the likes of Three Summers and Spin Out did not.

The only title that really succeeded at being an out-and-out comedy is That’s Not Me, a disarming charmer from co-creators Gregory Erdstein and Alice Foulcher. The story of twin sisters, both actresses only one of whom is a success, was modest but often never more than a scene away from making you laugh with a wry or awkward observation about fame, siblings or ‘adulting’.

It was of course only given a limited theatrical release and garnered no AACTA Award nominations, not even for Foulcher’s dynamite double performance. AACTA, like the industry at large, preferred such drab fair as The Butterfly Tree, Hounds of Love, and Don’t Tell.

An Inconvenient Truth

For whatever reason, the Australian entertainment industry has always had a strange love-hate relationship with comedy. I suspect that has something to do with how distinctly local our sense of humour is. Outside of that rush of international hits of the 1990s, Aussie humour often doesn’t travel well, and international success is a large part of modern funding concepts. Cultural cringe is real and too many in power don’t like to champion it.

It’s frustrating because comedies are routinely very successful across all mediums, yet only recently has comedy begun to be produced in numbers recognising that fact. At the height of its success, for example, Kath & Kim had to compete at the AFI Awards (now the AACTA Awards) under the drama category!

It has been more than a decade since Kath & Kim went off the air and it’s obvious that the small screen (television) and even smaller screen (web series) have sucked up most of the comedic creativity within the industry.

And yet, for all of the critical acclaim heaped upon series like The Katering Show, Utopia and Rosehaven, how often do they permeate through popular culture to the degree of, say, Muriel’s Wedding? Likewise, Strictly Ballroom, both of which have been adapted to popular stage musicals.

What about The Castle, Kenny, The Dish, or even, however maligned, The Wog Boy, the oeuvre of Yahoo Serious, and Crocodile Dundee? The latter is still the highest grossing Australian film ever made and is routinely quoted and referenced across the globe.

TV may have overtaken cinema as the dominant artform for younger audiences more in tune to technological shifts like streaming, but movies can offer far bigger rewards to those willing to take the gamble. For all of the artistic freedom allowed to a wonderful series like Please Like Me, the movies provide a bigger canvas for artists. Even the crews behind Kath & Kim, Fat Pizza, and Housos knew that.

A Swinging Good Time

Hopefully Swinging Safari is a hit and can inspire more confidence in comedy on the big screen. We need it. And it ought to be a success, too.

Hopefully Swinging Safari is a hit and can inspire more confidence in comedy on the big screen. We need it. And it ought to be a success, too.

While it is true that Elliott’s film embraces an aesthetic that has always rubbed certain people the wrong way, it is a go-for-broke experience that embraces everything that is ridiculous, awful, and sublime about our culture. It’s a visual treat thanks to some truly inspired costume design and art direction, plus the cast is game for just about anything up to and including Asher Keddie – yes, Offspring’s Nina! – squatting in Kylie Minogue’s front yard to take a piss on a jellyfish-stung teenager.

The film performs a delicate balancing act of critiquing Aussie society while also embracing it. I believe that that is what has made films like Muriel’s Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla, The Castle and The Dressmaker resonate so much with hometown audiences years — and even decades — later.

Swinging Safari isn’t on the level of those classics; it lacks a deeper resonance beyond mere parody of Australian culture (or lack thereof) to achieve that. What it does do, however, is pack itself full of so many one-liners and visual gags that if you’re not laughing at one joke there will inevitably be several more immediately following it to get a rise out of you. And anybody who grew up in the 1970s, the 1980s and even the early 1990s, will identify a part of their childhood in this grotesquely ridiculous vision of Australian life.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much at @glenndunks.