Swinging Safari

Image of the cast from the film Swinging Safari

Swinging Safari [2018] is an Australian dramedy filled with mounds of potential, however, it stumbles over itself in an attempt to live up to the iconic Aussie dramedies that have towered before it. Stephan Elliott documents the summer spent by three coastal dwelling Australian families in the swinging 70’s; painting a picture of boozy parents who’ve forgotten the whereabouts of their ragtag kids and sandy buckets of KFC, capturing the tonality of 1970’s Australiana is about all this film really executes with finesse. It quickly becomes a summer the families will never forget due to the arrival of newfound neighborly feuds and the beaching of a two-tonne blue whale upon their town’s shore, however, it’s with these arrivals that the film descends into cringe-worthy and entirely questionable madness. A film that had such potential it was practically begging for the attention of a director with a subtler touch such as Taika Waititi or PJ Hogan. Although Elliott previously conjured up the Australian camp classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert it seems with Swinging Safari he’s lost his touch, so much so that not even the coupling of a bottle blond, mustachioed, speedo wearing Guy Pearce and an alcoholic, bowl-cut donning Kylie Minogue could save him.

Just in case you forgot, it’s the 1970’s: When handled well, nostalgia can be a films greatest tool, tap into the right audience experience and they’re transported into their own memories via mere relation to the characters in front of them. Use too little and you risk wasting a prime opportunity, use too much and it’s off-putting and on the nose; unfortunately for Swinging Safari, at the third mention of Engelbert Humperdinck it had already far surpassed itself as being trite and on the nose. So many dramedies have proven that nostalgia can be executed with balance, see Dazed and Confused, Anchorman and Boogie Nights, however, where Elliott fails this balance is in his dialogue. As screenwriter, Elliott consistently set himself up to capture, almost perfectly, the pure laid-back Australian parenting style that so many of us have experienced, however, for every beat he hits there’s a 1970’s reference shoved in your face to go with it. One particular line elated a physical response from me, “if you don’t come, you’re not getting Chiko Rolls or Sunny Boys from mum,” Elliott may as well have written a Buzzfeed article entitled “Seven Aussie snacks you totally miss!”. This seems innocent enough but it’s his ability to show that subtle nostalgia is achievable for him as a director that shows the potential this film had to be a triumph. A scene following this uses amazingly cut overhead visuals to show the kids at school buying their favorite candies and the “tuck shop lady” giving into the kids who lie through their teeth to get free food. Standing alone, the latter scene felt like a triumph, but Elliott tries so hard to push for 70’s nostalgia that the Chiko Roll is completely spoiled by being smothered in tomato sauce.

An Aussie comedy needs heart: Australian comedy is somewhat sacred. With classics like Muriel’s Wedding, The Castle, Strictly Ballroom and the aforementioned Priscilla (coming from Elliott himself) it’s quite important for Australian cinephile’s to be treated to something of high quality. I had high hopes heading into this film because of a combination of marketing and Elliott’s previous work, in Australia there was a lot of talk of this film being the “saviour of Aussie comedy” and a matchable follow-up to Priscilla, this film didn’t even come close and it’s due to a lack of heart. This is not for lack of trying, though, a focus on young, escapist romance between Melly and the film’s narrator Jeff is the emotional glue that Elliott has set in place to make Safari work, unfortunately, his bets were misplaced. As far as chemistry goes, both direction and performance are to blame for the lack of investment I felt for the two young characters who received the most screen time, I often found myself wishing the entire film focussed on the constantly inebriated parents rather than their children. The amount of time Elliott spent attempting to make the audience feel something for Melly with her wishes of escape and exploration were overshadowed by the fact that there was no actual reason to care, a hint of it came through when we witnessed Melly’s mother mistreating her, but this was about two lines of scathing dialogue and limited reaction to such dialogue. It was hardly enough to solidify any true emotional investment, and in the end, emotion and heart are two core elements of a good Australian comedy.

Swinging Safari promises audiences a trip to the beach on a sweltering hot day but only allows them to dip a toe into the water. Whilst there are moments that shine through, overall, the film was an on the nose nostalgia trip tailored to baby boomers and those that haphazardly raised them in the era of free love. Stephen Elliott tries hard to get Australian comedy back on the map, but in the end, what the genre could probably benefit from most is an era of new voices and a set of fresh eyes.