Saturday, November 21, 2009

Danny Deckchair (Jeff Balsmeyer, 2003)

Up, up, and away

Jeff Balsmeyer's Danny Deckchair (2003) rings one unusual variation on the meet-cute rom-com routine--instead of bumping into each other, or entangling each others' dog leashes, or finding each other through the internet, Danny Morgan (Rhys Ifans) by means of an accident flies through the air on a lawn chair lifted by a series of large helium balloons tied to said chair. It takes two of his friends to hold the chair down while they watch a game on TV, during a back yard barbie; when one of them jumps up in his excitement Danny launches into the sky, travels hundreds of miles thanks to a passing storm, falls to earth thanks to some ill-timed fireworks, and lands almost on the lap of Glenda (Miranda Otto), a lonely, spinster-ish young woman whose day job is issuing parking tickets.

Other than that Mythbusters-style bit of engineering (possibly members of that show saw this movie, or was it vice-versa?), it's pretty much paint-by-numbers: Danny sees his mishap as a chance to start a new life (reason why he'd been tying balloons to his chair was because he'd caught his wife Trudy riding in a car with another man). Danny flirts with every girl in this strange new town; catches the attention of a local political figure; organizes pancake breakfasts; stops talk at every party attended; pretty much finds himself running for office, at the brink of winning it all, having it all.

Of course it's going to have a happy ending; of course the path to perfect happiness runs rough, at least temporarily (some kids find the abandoned chair hanging from a tree, and inform the authorities); of course the attraction Danny and Glenda sense simmering behind each others' eyes blooms into a full romance, which is sorely tested--Balsmeyer, with the help of Tim Gooding and Lizzie Bryant, isn't re-inventing the deck chair, just adding some padding and a touch of paint to make the furniture look fresher. One either finds the movie tired and limp, hardly a worthy successor to the cinema of Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, or one finds it familiar and comforting, the Aussie equivalent of warm chicken soup.

Rom-coms live or die on their casting, and luckily for this bowl of broth Ifans and Otto generate enough heat to hold our attention. Ifans is the kind of actor that (without the luck of a major hit) can develop a following, popping up in small roles in this picture or that; his wide smile and sleepy eyes are matched by Otto's wider smile and lovely, faintly oriental eyes--eyes with the ability to look upon a man, any man (including, most memorably, Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn son of Arathorn, in the Lord of the Rings movies), and convince us she's totally besotted. It's not so much sexual frisson they display as it is a kind of dreamy intimacy, a sense that they share a fantasy life no one else suspect exists--possibly the crucial scene here is that of the two lovers sitting on Glenda's motorcycle, sparking her recollection of how her parents would ride about the countryside together, a pair of adventurers. One only has to look at the two looking at nothing in particular to realize that these two are made for each other.

It's--cute. Understand how some people would take a liking to this, and it's difficult to begrudge them the chance to lean back, relax for about a hundred minutes, dream of a life where a gorgeous woman is available just a balloon ride away.

My problem is this: I remember dreaming of a vast continent Down Under where mutant punks race monster vehicles and a steel boomerang whistles high overhead; I remember a party of young girls vanishing on a field trip, their ultimate fate a metaphysical mystery; I remember a doomed young soldier alone on a battlefield, running as if his life depended on it (it didn't, but he ran anyway); I remember two soldiers seated before a firing squad, sun rising on the vast landscape around them, gloriously calm even if they are guilty of monstrous crimes.

I remember a young girl standing against a similarly vast landscape, determined to achieve her dreams of becoming a writer even at the expense of love or a happy life (I'd like to see her give Glenda a good talking-to); I remember a Catholic monk refusing to even touch his students, being tormented in his deepest nightmares by the sensuous caresses of nymphs; I remember an anguished aborigine wielding an ax, slaughtering every white man, woman and child he knew.

It's a cinema of extraordinary depth and grandeur, playing out against an endless rolling horizon filled with bush and game. We get a glimpse of that grandeur in Danny Deckchair--when his chair takes flight, when we get some sense of the depth of feeling between Danny and Glenda. Otherwise, I'm very much missing what use to make this cinema great.

First published in Businessworld, 11.13.09

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