An event picture in its own quiet way, Aussie helmer Rolf de Heer’s black-and-whitecomedy, “Dr. Plonk,” is a tribute to silent filmmaking and a sly, Jacques Tati-like satire of modern ways. Bouncing between 1907 and the present in the titular scientist’s time machine, pic runs the gamut from Buster Keaton to the Keystone Kops and comes up laughing most of the time. Though pic’s not an unqualified success, fests should form a queue and select offshore markets may request house calls. Local release is planned for late this year.
In a career predominated by intimate drama (“The Quiet Room,” “Dance Me to My Song”), the film finds de Heer in his most playful mood. He’s taken the humorous inclinations of his previous “Ten Canoes” and rolled them up into knockabout farce.
Pic kicks off with everyone slipping on banana peels and banging into doors in the lab of Dr. Plonk (newcomer Nigel Lunghi), a chrome-domed eccentric with goatee and mustache. Movie buffs will have a field day spotting refs to classic Mack Sennett and Hal Roach routines as Plonk gets up, falls down and runs around with mute goofball assistant Paulus (Paul Blackwell), hefty wife Mrs. Plonk (Magda Szubanski), their overworked maid (Phoebe Paterson de Heer, the helmer’s daughter) and amazingly talented woofer Tiberius. In the midst of all this slapstick, Plonk discovers the world will end in 2008.
His findings are dismissed by skeptical Prime Minister Stalk (Wayne Anthoney), so Plonk builds a time machine to bring evidence back from 2007. Naturally, the contraption goes haywire at first: Paulus returns with a hot hippie chick he’s in no mind to return, and Plonk lands among cannibal Aborigines who figure him for dinner. Latter sequence merrily satirizes cliffhanger serials with fake natives by having these indigenous cast members (some from “Ten Canoes”) overact in silly grass skirts and fuzzy-wuzzy wigs.
Middle section detouring into Paulus’ amorous adventures in the local park doesn’t match the pace or gag success rate of the opening, but momentum and laughs are regained once Plonk finally begins zapping in and out of Adelaide, 2007. It’s here that he takes on the same kind of deadpan befuddlement of M. Hulot in “Playtime” by venturing into industrial zones and the burbs, where families are glued to TV while messages about the end of the world constantly flash onscreen.
Wrangling his way to an audience with 2007 Prime Minister Short (played by South Australian Premier Mike Rann, in his second credited movie role), Plonk sees his fortunes tumble when he’s declared a terrorist suspect. A terrific chase sequence brings the show to a lovely, bittersweet finale.
Well-cast romp gets good value from perfs that evoke the era without slipping into the florid style of silent-movie acting that could alienate modern audiences. Best is Szubanski (the farmer’s wife in “Babe”), who’s capable of transforming from Plonk’s lovey-dovey wife into a hard-nosed slave driver. Lunghi is fine in the less showy title role.
Outstanding tech package looks like it could have been produced by Thomas Edison. Shooting on expired stock with a hand-wound camera, d.p. Judd Overton keeps compositions as clean and simple as they ought to be. Undercranking during chase scenes stays true to the period and is never overdone.
Screening caught featured live music composed by Graham Tardif. Spot-on pastiche of jigs, hillbilly pickings and sea-shanty melodies plays a major part in getting the gags across and will be recorded exactly as such for release.