Review: ‘The Illustrated Family Doctor’

A darkly comic fable about a publishing-house employee whose body manifests diseases described in a medical journal he's editing, "The Illustrated Family Doctor" reps an uneven feature bow by noted Aussie commercials director Kriv Stenders. Despite precise visuals, and perfs to match, pic feels hemmed in by its clinically low-key ambience and the protag's dulled emotional register. Festival exposure could help build cult potential in selected markets, but otherwise the prognosis for pic's commercial life is decidedly iffy. Down Under, film opens March 3.

A darkly comic fable about a publishing-house employee whose body manifests diseases described in a medical journal he’s editing, “The Illustrated Family Doctor” reps an uneven feature bow by noted Aussie commercials director Kriv Stenders. Despite precise visuals, and perfs to match, pic feels hemmed in by its clinically low-key ambience and the protag’s dulled emotional register. Festival exposure could help build cult potential in selected markets, but otherwise the prognosis for pic’s commercial life is decidedly iffy. Down Under, film opens March 3.

Gary Kelp (Samuel Johnson) is a thirtyish wage slave for Info Digest, a company specialising in condensed novels and self-help manuals. His latest assignment is editing a journal called “The Illustrated Family Doctor,” a grisly compendium of color shots of rashes, tumors and sundry unpalatable afflictions.

Gary is already depressed by the recent death of his father, whose bone marrow has been removed and reassigned, and by his faltering relationship with g.f. Jennifer (Kesti Morassi). He bottoms out when confronted by the hideous images he’s required to cut and paste.

The downcast desk jockey is also in the radar of the company’s efficiency watchdogs, as well as humiliated by an old friend, Carl (Jason Gann). Carl’s faux-worldly knowledge and zest is all the encouragement the fed-up Jennifer needs to ankle her relationship with Gary.

Principal agent provocateur for the script’s thematic manifesto on the effects of sterile workplaces and aimless lives is Ray (Colin Friels), a veteran novel-condenser. Ray offers brutally honest survival tips between meetings with Snapper Thompson (Paul Sonkkila), a hardened criminal whose memoirs are in Info Digest’s pipeline.

Featured only briefly, Thompson is easily the most memorable character. Scenes in which the stony-faced tough guy serve Gary hard-boiled wisdom on everything from how to open doors properly to the best brand of eye-drops carry an impetus and rasping humor the screenplay could have used much more of.

For two-thirds of its running time, pic plays like “Fight Club” without the fights, as the malignancies of corporate culture, dead-end jobs and emotional impotence symbolically infest Gary’s face and organs. First tiny flicker of hope arrives in the form of Ray’s daughter, Christine (Jessica Napier), a sexy blonde whose personal problems look like a perfect match for Gary’s deteriorating physical stocks. However, genuine optimism is injected only deep into the final reel.

Tech credits are classy, with Kevin Hayward’s surgically clean lensing and symmetrical compositions creating a vision of office space as hell on earth with a stuck-on smile. Evocative industrial score by Aussie electronica gurus Severed Heads complement the mood.

The Illustrated Family Doctor

Australia

Production

A Palace Films release of a Film Finance Corp. Australia presentation of a Pod Film production, in association with New South Wales Film & Television Office, Showtime Australia. (International sales: MovieHouse Entertainment, London.) Produced by Catherine Kerr. Directed by Kriv Stenders. Screenplay, Stenders, David Snell, based on Snell's novel.

Crew

Camera (Atlab color), Kevin Hayward; editor, Denise Haratzis; music, Severed Heads; production designer, Elizabeth Mary Moore; art director, Neil Hanson; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Finlay, Andrew Belletty; assistant director, Charles Rotherham; casting, Nikki Barrett. Reviewed at Verona Cinema, Sydney, Nov. 19, 2004. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Samuel Johnson, Colin Friels, Kesti Morassi, Sacha Horler, Jessica Napier, Sarah Pierce, Jason Gann, Paul Sonkkila.
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