I'll get to the review in a minute, but allow me a chance for a brief reflection as I draw near the conclusion of this January 2015 fundraiser, here in June 2017. One of the best things about throwing myself open to requests from readers is being forcibly exposed to things that I'd never have otherwise heard about, let alone seen. Collecting movie recommendations is probably the best thing about having an internet full of cinephiles, and having the means to find movies that, according to the official channels, you have no business watching, is probably my favorite thing about the internet in general.
This has everything to do with Crackerjack from 2002, one of those warm-hearted uplifting comedies full of colorful weirdos that has been one of Australia's most reliable cinematic exports, but which itself never seems to have played outside of Australia and New Zealand except at film festivals. And that comes as absolutely no surprise. Whereas something like 1994's Muriel's Wedding or 2000's The Dish have a distinctively universal approach to their amiable weirdness, Crackerjack is so irreducibly Australian that I literally don't know what to make of it at times. Being asked to watch and review it has left me peering into a world I never knew existed: the main star and co-writer is a major radio comedian making his movie debut, and the cast is made up of what I gather to be a murderer's row of beloved elder statespersons of Australian film and theater, and other than a few faces that I belatedly recognised, I have no context for any of them. An Australian viewer would, of a certainty, have a much different response to any of this than I could possibly imagine.
None of which is to say that Crackerjack is unsatisfying to this idiot American film critic. On the contrary, the film on its own merits is inexorably charming and satisfying. Nobody with a background in any English-language film tradition can pretend to find the plot shockingly original or overburdened with unpredictable twists, but that's not really what it's trying to do at all. It mostly plays as a younger man's love letter to the previous generation: a cocksure fellow learning how much he can learn from his colorful elders. Which is, I suspect, as true in the casting as it is in the storytelling. An accordingly, it's the characters themselves, and the performances behind them, which largely drives the movie - certainly not the story, not even really the comedy.
The foremost of those characters, and by some stretch the least-interesting, is Jack Simpson, played by aforementioned comedy star Mick Molloy, who co-wrote the script with his brother Richard. Jack is a lazy office worker, who supplements his income by renting out the parking space given to him as part of his membership to the Cityside Bowling Club, a club he joined for absolutely no other reason. As the film starts, this con has come around to bite him on the ass: apparently, members of the Cityside Bowling Club need to actually play bowls, or they get thrown out, and so Jack resigns himself to spending a weekend as the youngest bowler by some 30 years.
I hope you are sitting down, else the shock will overwhelm you: over the course of the film's trim 92 minutes, Jack will learn to enjoy bowling, and to greatly admire the eccentric old folk keeping the sport alive, though the kind of "alive" that involves nervously looking around to make sure the will is in order. Given the advanced age of the average club member, and the rate at which bowling clubs have been dying off around Australia, Cityside has itself become the target of a slimy land developer, Bernie Fowler (John Clarke), and despite the best efforts of club presidents Len (Frank Wilson) and Eileen (Monica Maughan), Bernie, and the natural erosive quality of time, have maneuvered the club to a point where it will take at least some good luck and a successful winning streak for the club to outlive the current season. And so, not only does Jack have to learn to love the sport, he has to learn to be very good at it, and very quickly, under the guidance of the gifted old timer Stan Coombs (Bill Hunter) and the acerbic sports journalist Nancy Brown (Judith Lucy), whose prickly, judgmental exterior slightly hides a certain attraction to Jack, who happily flirts with her in his shaggy, lackadaisical way.
92 minutes is about the longest that a film like this could dare to be. You can tell what the final scene is going to consist of by the end of the 30-minute mark, and that's not a slam; if Crackerjack had ended with Jack fucking up and killing off Cityside, I'd have started screaming at my computer screen (the film, in fact, makes its very last, unexpectedly poignant joke about this exact thing, in the form of an endless-repeated story about Sir Francis Drake, which grows more satisfying rather than less, through familiarity). My point being only that it's well not too demand too much of our time and attention if a film is going to go precisely where we expect it to. But again, anyway, the fun isn't in watching the story play out, but in watching Jack stumble his way into the idiosyncratic rhythms, social norms, and vocabulary of Cityside, a place untouched by time (the food service prices were frozen back in the '70s), and beholden to an elaborate network of etiquette, as Jack finds out when he makes the near-fatal mistake of misusing the complimentary cheese wheel to make a sandwich.
That there is a cheese wheel as a major plot point, and that it is used as the punchline to numerous jokes, tells you much of what you need to know, I think, about the general attitude of Crackerjack. It's not a very uncommon attitude: the filmmakers look at the foibles of an insular group of out-of-touch people, and finds them to be wholly delightful and beguiling. And that's pretty much it. The Molloy brothers and director Paul Moloney have no particular, specific sense of humor throughout; sometime the joke will be based in sharp vulgarism, sometimes in juvenile absurdity (most evident in, but certainly not limited to, a scene in which some scones are inadvertently made with marijuana, and the old folks get stoned off their head), and sometimes just in the colorfulness of, say, the whole scandal of the wheel of cheese.
This could be insubstantial - is insubstantial, I should say, and it could be inconsequential, but for the pleasure to be had in hanging out with the cast. Not Jack, I could take or leave him (Molloy suggests a smarter, lazier version of the John Belushi stock character from the late '70s & early '80s, and he feels like a holdover from a version of this same movie made 15 years earlier). But the old folks, as well as Nancy, make for extremely gratifying company. And why shouldn't they, the film is handed to them: the plot exists largely to push Jack into learning more about them and finding reasons to fall in love with all of them, and as long as the film is working on any level whatsoever, it makes us fall in love with them as well. It helps that the cast of old pros commits so hard to the film, with even the smallest roles exuding personality and a clearly-defined sense of interpersonal relationships, some of which we'll never learn, some of which we can grasp. Hunter is a particular joy, a craggy, irritable grandpa figure who does absolutely nothing to challenge the "surly old mentor" cliché, but has enough of a twinkle and a quick grin that he always comes off as decent and sweethearted (by all means, the film wants us to love Hunter and his character: the closest that Moloney and cinematographer Brent Crockett come to having a visual idea is to let the camera linger on him in close-up and absorb all of the lines and ruddiness of his face).
Crackerjack is no masterpiece, not of sports films, comedies, sport comedies, or Australian films about adorable eccentrics (a genre that, for my taste, peaked with Baz Luhrmann's 1992 film debut, Strictly Ballroom, which featured Hunter as the villain). But it is, nevertheless, a deeply pleasant, satisfying film, that introduces us to an extremely worthwhile group of characters and sheds light on a subculture that, to this American writer, seemed as alien as the habits of moon men, while being instantly recognisable in any culture where competitive sports and the arcane rules thereof exist. I enjoyed watching it a great deal more than my 3-star rating indicates; it's nothing unique, but it's such a comfy, well-executed version of what it is that it still feels rather special - there are, after all, enough ways for this kind of material to go wrong that it's worth praising a film that gets so many of the little things so right.