The third production from the Melbourne-based House & Moorhouse company, after “Proof” and “Muriel’s Wedding,” is a modest feel-good comedy with pleasant performances but not much originality. A familiar tale of a heel reformed by the love of a good woman, pic fails to ignite as handled by first-time director Tony Mahood, husband of producer Lynda House. Soft business in Australia is to be anticipated. Given the critical and, in some territories, commercial success of the earlier House & Moorhouse outings, there may be international sales interest , but “River Street” lacks the bold concepts of its predecessors.
Though some passing pleasures crop up along the way, the film, scripted by Philip Ryall from a story idea by Mahood, offers no surprises once the initial setup has been established. Nor is anything made of the relationship between the yuppie Ben and Wendy, the decent young woman who brings about his reformation; as a romantic comedy, the film is decidedly deficient in the romance department.
Aden Young convincingly projects both charm and ruthlessness as Ben Egan, a go-getter from humble origins who works for shady real estate man Vincent Pierce (Bill Hunter at his most avuncular and bombastic). Engaged to marry Pierce’s elegant daughter, Sharon (Tammy MacIntosh), Ben seems to have it all.
But thanks to a series of comic accidents which constitute by far the film’s best scenes, he blows a big real estate deal. Convicted for striking a police officer, he is sentenced to 100 days’ community service, which he’s obliged to fulfill at a drop-in center for street kids, run by Wendy (Essie Davis). Ben soon reasserts himself when he realizes that the dilapidated property that houses the center is a piece of prime river frontage and, further, that it’s owned by Wendy’s grandmother (Lois Ramsey), a trusting old widow.
In no time at all Ben has conned the woman into selling him the property, thereby regaining the favor of Pierce and Sharon. But he starts to have a change of heart when he befriends Chris (Sullivan Stapleton), one of the teenagers who haunts the center, and when he begins to think romantic thoughts about Wendy.
This is where pic loses its way. Filmmakers assume auds will accept at face value the idea that Ben is so smitten with Wendy he’ll reject everything in his life to that point and redeem himself. But there’s hardly a hint of a passionate attraction onscreen.
Nor are the other relationships very convincing. For an engaged couple, Ben and Sharon act as if they’re strangers, and Ben’s friendship with Chris — supposedly another pivotal element — is superficially depicted. As a result, the cliched scene in which Ben walks out of the church on his wedding day as his bride and her father arrive seems like churlish behavior on his part rather than the redemption it’s supposed to be.
The actors keep some interest alive, with Davis capable and likable and newcomer Stapleton making his mark as Chris. Murat Girgin proves a scene-stealer as a worldly youngster at the center. Production values are surprisingly modest, with Martin McGrath’s low-key photography below his usual high standard. Music score by David Bridie and John Phillips becomes obvious after a good start. Occasional voiceover narration too often spells out what should already be clear to the audience.