Escapist fun or oblivious contempt, Rachel Ward's film seems confused about its intentions, says Mel Campbell.
Toasting the good life in Palm Beach, courtesy of Universal.
I had trouble figuring out which kind of film Palm Beach was supposed to be. So, I suspect, did its creative team. As a piss-take of rich, self-absorbed boomers and the shallow foibles they think are world-shatteringly significant, Palm Beach is quite funny. But as a serious drama that aims to capture universal themes about love, sex and friendship, the vulnerabilities of ageing and the anxieties of parenthood, it’s embarrassingly vapid.
It’s Frank’s (Bryan Brown) milestone birthday – never specified, but he could be turning 70. Along with his wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi) and their responsible doctor daughter Ella (Matilda Brown) and feckless young-adult son Dan (Charlie Vickers), Frank is welcoming his far-flung buddies for an extended minibreak at his spectacular home in the monied enclave of Palm Beach, at the tip of Sydney’s northern beaches.
Frank was once the manager of a band called Pacific Sideburns that was successful in the ’80s and had one big hit, the reggae-tinged ‘Fearless’ – which was written for this film by James ‘One-a More River’ Reyne. Now, arriving euphorically by seaplane are Frank’s former bandmates: journalist Leo (Sam Neill), his wife Bridget (Jacqueline McKenzie) and stepdaughter Caitlin (Frances Berry); and adman Billy (Richard E Grant) and his wife Eva (Heather Mitchell), a successful actress. Joining the muster via ute are Frank’s daughter from his first marriage, country singer Holly (Claire van der Boom), and her rugged rural beau, Doug (former McLeod’s Daughters stud Aaron Jeffery).
I have no problem with writers, directors and actors making a movie basically in order to have a nice holiday with their mates. The charm of films like Mamma Mia (2008) and its (2018) sequel, or Grown Ups (2010) and its (2013) sequel, is that everyone seems to be having knowingly silly fun. So I can’t begrudge director Rachel Ward and her playwright mate and co-screenwriter Joanna Murray-Smith for hiring a spectacular and luxurious beachside mansion as an excuse to hang out together with some of the most familiar actors in Australian cinema – including Ward’s actor husband Bryan Brown and their actor daughter Matilda.
The early, indulgent scenes of air-kissing, seafood-munching and wine-quaffing are vicariously pleasurable, as is the undignified sight of men in their sixties and seventies hooting with glee as they ride boogie boards and then re-enact their rock-star youth in a shop-window reflection, with towels tucked fastidiously around their waists.
What annoyed me, however, is that Palm Beach drops these fun, self-parodic elements as easily as those towels, vacillating into a self-serious melodrama about masculine vulnerabilities and buried resentments. The film seems to want to capture something zeitgeisty, like The Big Chill (1983) or Parenthood (1989), or to parse its family relationships with the sophistication of Summer Hours (2008). But the effect here is fatuous. Worse, the metatextual closeness of this story to its creative team’s real careers and relationships raises the tedious possibility that Ward is recruiting the audience to be moved by her and her cast’s own privileged lives.
The film’s Big Chill ambitions leak out in its didactic needle-drop soundtrack, which includes ‘Born To Be Wild’ by Steppenwolf, ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s World’ by Renée Geyer, ‘You Make Me Feel So Young’ by Frank Sinatra and ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ by Roberta Flack. More diegetic merriment comes from the desultory guitar-strummings of Holly, who despite being a professional musician does not seem like a very confident or accomplished performer.
There’s also a shadowy “pact” between Charlotte and Leo, Frank’s mysterious meds that he keeps retreating to his study to gulp by the handful, Billy’s humiliating career eclipse, Charlotte’s breast cancer, Eva’s low-level panic at being relegated to grandmotherly roles, Holly’s reluctance to settle down with the reliable Doug, and Frank’s resentment of his hapless son Dan, a stereotypical millennial who can never stick at a career and is constantly glued to his phone.
It’s familiar stuff. The men joust for scraps of virility by criticising Frank’s plans for a pizza oven, teasing him over the neighbouring chimney that peeps into his perfect view, and trying to look cool in front of the younger people. Meanwhile, the older women make salads, do yoga and fret about the loss of their fuckability. Dan and Caitlin seem perpetually on the verge of hooking up, which would be very Rachel Ward, except they’re not actually related.
It always looks lovely, thanks to a stunning natural backdrop of spangled seafront and the mansion full of boho knick-knacks, and the performances are enjoyable, the veteran cast effectively conveying the impression of having been mates forever. Richard E Grant seems to be having the most fun, showing the same kind of gleeful festivity that marked his charming Oscar run-up.
However, other characters are largely sidelined; we don’t get more than a glimpse of Ella’s and Bridget’s inner lives. And the slackly paced script lacks proportion in the way plot twists are handled: key revelations are either extremely hectic but unfold in a complacent, offhand way, or we’re expected to consider extremely mild, clichéd developments to be absolutely profound for these characters.
Ward and Murray-Smith needed to ask: what do privileged characters like these reveal about Australian life today? In a nation where callous wealth inequality is bubbling poisonously to the surface as rampant wage theft meets renewed rhetoric of “job snobs”, and the fastest growing segment of homeless people is women aged over 55, a film that asks its audience to show “unfunded empathy” for the travails of ageing, bourgeois husbands and wives looks less like escapist fun and more like oblivious contempt.
2.5 stars ★★☆
Director: Rachel Ward
Australia, 2019, 1hr 40min
Release date: 8 August 2019