When things go wrong at a wedding, it sometimes takes more than a British screenwriter and an AFI-nominated director to save it, as the latest chaotic comedy from Death at a Funeral‘s Dean Craig and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert‘s Stephen Elliot sets out to prove.
There is a moment early in A Few Best Men, where David (Xavier Samuel) arrives home in London after a long trip, and a print of Queen Elizabeth II altered to look like Heath Ledger’s Joker is seen hanging in the background. That painting has, like most pop art, taken two recognisable things and combined them into a piece of art that might be funny on first glance, but it shallow and opportunistic once you scratch beneath the surface. The same could be said of A Few Best Men, ostensibly a 1970s-style Australian comedy mashed up with that wacky British sensibility.
David (Xavier Samuel) and Mia (Laura Brent) meet on an island holiday, and following a whirlwind romance, decide to marry. David returns to London to tell his friends, the practical Tom (Kris Marshall), the neurotic Graham (Kevin Bishop), and depressed and recently dumped Luke (Tim Draxl), about the pending nuptials. They all agree to go with him to the ceremony, but there’s only one catch: it’s in Australia. Yet Mia’s parents Barbara (Olivia Newton-John) and political bigwig Jim (Jonathan Biggins) are wary of the rapid marriage, and when David’s friends quickly turn the big day into a big mess, first impressions are less than spectacular.
It has almost become standard practice to import an overseas actor to make the local production more of a box office draw, and A Few Best Men is no exception. In fact, it has imported no less than three young lads from Britain, but in this case the natural draw is the dreamy homegrown Twilight Saga star Xavier Samuel. This naturally gives a very British sensibility to proceedings, and instantly marks it for the lightweight Death at a Funeral that it is. Yet it also tries to capture a lost Australian sensibility, the freewheeling nature of Don’s Party and the retro vibe that has infused every Australian comedy since the days of Muriel’s Wedding and Elliot’s own Priscilla. In a telling example of how far the colonials are from their former Queen, the two don’t sit comfortably with each other.
It isn’t a complete disaster, although it comes pretty close. There are some terrific individual character moments, especially from Graham (Kevin Bishop), who has a general malaise brought on by cheese. Similarly, Olivia Newton-John gives one of her best performances in years, as the uptight and later drug-fueled mother-in-law to be, and Rebel Wilson provides some potentially ad-libbed laughs as well. The sequence in which a giant floral arrangement breaks loose and bowls over guests is actually masterfully executed comedy. However, Dean Craig’s script pulls on every Australian cliché it can think of, from blondes with shots at the arrivals terminal, to the outer fringes of Sydney populated almost exclusively with refugees from a Barry McKenzie film. It does so without any apparent irony, making it not only insulting to our collective intelligence, but unclear who the audience is.
Indeed, this is primarily where A Few Best Men falls down. In trying to be all things to all people, it will undoubtedly have an appeal to a huge number of viewers. This is, after all, familiar territory and not every comedy needs to be groundbreaking. While these broad brush strokes may succeed in getting belly laughs from some, there is also a limited appeal to extended sequences involving the manual extraction of cocaine from a sheep’s rectum. Much like that deed, the film will be painful and disturbing to those expecting more, but probably pleasurable for those willing to just go with it.
A Few Best Men is released in Australia on 26 January 2011 from Icon.