A broad, unsubtle comedy that affectionately embraces the most basic ethnic stereotyping, “The Wogboy” has surprised local observers by scoring the biggest opening ever for an Australian film, topping the record set by “Crocodile Dundee 2” 12 years ago. A mega-hit Down Under doesn’t necessarily parlay into an international success, however, and pic is probably too local — and not sufficiently funny — to make much of an impact in major territories. In English-language countries, some post-synching will be needed to modify the more obscure urban slang. Having taken $2.3 million in its opening weekend (plus previews), toppling “The Talented Mr. Ripley” off the top spot in its opening week, “The Wogboy” is already in the record books. But word of mouth could be spotty, and pic skews more toward men than women, who may justifiably find it aggressively macho and insensitive.
“The Wogboy” is the brainchild of actor-writer Nick Giannopoulos, who rose to fame in Oz with his hugely successful, and funny, 1987 stage show, “Wogs Out of Work,” which cleverly worked against political correctness and stereotyping. This was followed by an equally successful TV series, “Acropolis Now,” and another stage production, “Wog-a-Rama.” With their boots-and-all humor, charm and shrewd observations, these shows appealed to Australians of various ethnic backgrounds.Sadly, “The Wogboy” is a decided step back from the cutting-edge quality of Giannopoulos’ earlier work. Though it has a perfectly serviceable plotline and at least one genuinely funny scene, too much of the film relies on the hoariest of jokes, and the project harks back to another era of race relations in Australia.
After briefly sketching in the protag’s family background (with Giannopoulos portraying both of his immigrant parents), and his tormented childhood (his mother sent him to a Melbourne school wearing traditional Greek costume and with salami and feta in his lunch box, so he was instantly dubbed “wogboy” by his peers), pic establishes Steve Karamatsis (Giannopoulos) as being cheerfully unemployed and on welfare. He and his Italian friend Frank (a very funny performance from former heartthrob Vince Colosimo) spend most nights at clubs trying to pick up blond girls. Frank, who runs a pizza parlor, has a refined seduction technique, and a very healthy libido. The friends are flash dressers and think themselves pretty cool: Their role model is John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” “the biggest wog of them all” — and that reference tends to define the dated, ’70s tilt of the material.
When Steve’s car is involved in a minor collision with the limo belonging to the federal minister for employment, Raelene Beagle-Thorpe (Geraldine Turner), Steve demands monetary compensation, though the accident was entirely his fault. In revenge, the minister sets him up to be demolished on a national TV current affairs program as a shameless welfare cheat; Derryn Hynch, a real-life sometime TV host, amusingly plays the bullying interrogator who is won over by his supposed victim’s candor and charm. As a result, instead of becoming a national disgrace, Steve finds himself a hero and spokesman for the unemployed.
Seeking to make the best of the situation, Beagle-Thorpe invites him to join her staff, where he finds himself working alongside the fetching (blond) Celia (Lucy Bell), whose nympho sister, Annie (Abi Tucker), has the hots for Frank.
Having set up a potentially intriguing plot, loosely inspired by recent events involving high-profile unemployed in Australia, Giannopoulos and co-scripter Chris Anastassiades drop the ball. Crucially, much of the film’s dialogue is flat and relies on exceedingly old and familiar jokes. Script needed a lot of extra work before coming before the cameras, where it’s been functionally directed by Aleksi Vellis and rather flatly photographed by Roger Lanser.
One terrifically funny scene indicates what might have been: In a smart restaurant, the minister hosts a formal dinner in which captains of industry have been invited to meet our unemployed hero, but he’s so appalled by the nouveau cuisine that he uses his cell phone to order in pizzas.
But mostly the film is content to drift along on easy racial and ethnic stereotypes, with characters like a giant Yugoslav tough guy (Costas Kilias) who speaks fractured English with lots of four-letter interpolations and claims to be half-Serb, half-Croat, so that every morning he wants to kill himself.
Giannopoulos exhibits a charming onscreen personality as the central character, but Bell, as the object of his affection, comes across as rather strident and is unattractively photographed. Colosimo gets more than his share of laughs as the randy Frank, while Turner wickedly impersonates a well-known Australian politician with steely accuracy.
Production values are solid enough, and pic has sharper visual smarts than, say, “The Castle,” another locally successful lowbrow Aussie comedy. But like “The Castle” and 1999 hit “The Craic,” it may not have the international legs its local B.O. success might suggest.