It is said, with a wryly amused eye on the decade’s predilection for the consumption of illicit substances, that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there; conversely, a sign of having grown up in the ’70s, as yours truly did, is that you can remember every last gaudy, lurid, un-helicopter parented moment in vivid detail.
And honestly, in ways too innumerable to count, it was glorious.
Perhaps this is the product of overactive nostalgia – although as someone who fiercely inhabits the here-and-now, this is not an overriding personal influence – or simply that it was an era where the freewheeling Sixties gave way to a decade where the world, and Australia right along with it, collectively lost its mind.
The latest film from Stephan Elliott, Swinging Safari (with naming no doubt inspired by the 1962 Bert Kaempfert song of the same name, the record of which is pulled from the then-ubiquitous K-Tel Record Selector) harks back to that messy era, mining its fondness for hands-off parenting, social experimentation and suspect fashion and decor choices to the absolute max.
As an exercise in full-blown nostalgia, it’s damn near unparalleled with products, TV programs and a slew of social conventions packed in with wild, almost too enthusiastic abandon – there is a strong sense at times that products are namechecked simply to scream “YOU ARE IN THE 1970S!” – and if you grew up during this era of Polly Waffles, knitted jumpsuits for men, and anarchic parenting, you’ll find yourself laughing hard and often as the liberal touchstones to your (hopefully) misbegotten youth.
Unfortunately beyond that, the film is a narrative shamozzle that is every bit as overplayed and directionless as pretty much every last one of the almost interchangeable characters.
Resembling more of a ’70s-themed sketch show than an actual cohesively-plotted film, Swinging Safari struggles to say much more than “Weren’t the 1970s a crazy decade huh?”
It works overtime to convince us of this with the three families at the centre of the story, such as it is, the Halls (Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue as Keith and Kaye respectively), the Marshes (Asher Keddie and Jeremy Sims as Gale and Bob) and the Jones (Radha Mitchell and Julian McMahon as Jo and Rick) all in various stages of freewheeling chaos.
As the film opens, and a dead blue whale washes up on the omnipresent beach where everyone in the coastal community lives during the summer, swathed in tiny swimming costumes, zinc and awash in a sea of beer, wine and pee (well, one of the Halls’ bluebottle-cursed daughters does anyway), the three couples are as close as can be in their cul-de-sac.
Spending their time over cask wine and fondue, and neglecting their kids who are consigning to the rumpus room for TV and, ahem, other endeavours, the couples decide to try the latest overseas trend – wife-swapping with less than stellar results.
Unfortunately he who lives by the madcap, absurdity of life in the ’70s also dies by them, and while this act of social avant garde-ness unleashes all kinds of troubling questions about the state of the marriages and friendships of the six friends, any biting social commentary soon falls prey to the overriding silliness of what follows.
Which is a real pity because Elliott could have quite easily had his gaudy insanity and invested it with penetrating insightfulness too, but he squanders it on a Keystones Cops-ish sequence of frayed relations and petty practical jokes.
Crazy, over the top pitch-perfect decade-specific shenanigans box ticked; serious examination of the state of Australian suburban life, damn near negligible.
You might wonder if this is really such an issue given Swinging Safari is a lightweight, shock-value comedy after all but as plenty of other Aussie comedies have shown, such as the writer and director’s own supremely-successful Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it is possible to be winningly cheeky and very, very silly, and still stay something worthwhile.
The one ray of sunshine in this narrative hotch-potch is the tentative romance, and looming escape from stultifyingly Australian coastal suburbia, where the highest accolade, according to the safari suit-wearing town mayor played by Jack Thompson, of aspiring filmmaker Jeff Marsh (an impressive feature film debut by Atticus Robb; the character is semi-autobiographically based on Stephan Elliott) and Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson).
Their mutually-fortifying friendship provides the only real emotional resonance in a film that is far more keen on slapstick hilarity than saying anything worthwhile or telling a cohesive story.
As the two outcasts – it is hinted that creative Jeff may be gay while Mel is far more introspective than her shallow, glitzy parents or braindead brothers – band together to survive the town’s craziness and plot a future far away from it, we get a sense of the wonder and yet exhaustion of living in a decade where anything goes was less a mantra than a fact of life.
Alas, while they provide a nice little focal point for a film, their very real growing up travails are often overshadowed by the show’s overriding dedication to period portrayal and it penchant for what is sometimes pleasing surreal absurdities such as the dissection of the pet ownership of the three families which is decidedly non-RSPCA friendly.
This misstep speaks to the overall feeling of a film that misses more marks than it actually hits.
As an exercise in nostalgia and giddy slapstick hilarity, it can’t be beat; unfortunately it fails to match this with a robustly meaningful plot, any real character accessibility (they’re not really likable or fully differentiated) or any interesting or meaningful observations.
Swinging Safari is hardly a disaster on wheels and will provide a smattering of laughs, especially if you’re a product of the era it so assiduously and yes, affectionately details, but it’s not really worth your cinema time, and honestly you’d be better off waiting until it’s streaming on your preferred service where you can watch with copious amounts of alcohol at hand because, quite frankly, you will need it.