Aussie thesp and pro racecar driver Eric Bana makes a middling debut as documaker with “Love the Beast,” a chronicle of his 25-year relationship with his hotted-up ’70s muscle car. Bana packs plenty of visual grunt for revhead auds, but his misty-eyed narration and awkwardly staged probing of man-car love with an Oz TV psychologist veer close to vanity-project potholes. Australia’s legion of car enthusiasts will need to mobilize for the pic to notch meaningful mileage locally. Offshore theatrical prospects look iffy, with the tube a more likely pitstop.
Co-produced by Bana’s Pick Up Truck shingle, the film opens with sticky nostalgia for cars being “what you lived for” when he was a teenager in Tullamarine, a working-class ‘burb adjacent to Melbourne Airport. At 15, he acquired a beaten-up 1974 Falcon XB Coupe, famous locally as the “Interceptor” model in “Mad Max.”
Dramatic thread follows Bana and lifelong buddies Tony Ramunno, Andrew “Temps” Templeton and Jack Vukoja souping up the Beast for the umpteenth time and entering it in Targa Tasmania 2007, a five-day rally on notoriously difficult public roads. Likable trio of archetypal Aussie males are good company, whether telling anecdotes or hanging out with fellow competitors and car-crazy spectators.
Popping up most frequently (to the docu’s detriment) is “get real” TV guru Dr. Phil, who produces a string of warm and fuzzy assurances about hobbies being healthy, while Bana listens with near-cringe-inducing raptness. A guided tour of Jay Leno’s classic car collection yields little more than celebrity show-and-tell, leaving Jeremy Clarkson, a popular co-host of British TV’s “Top Gear,” to nail the matter.
Without a tincture of irony, Clarkson says emotional relationships with autos are natural because “cars are living entities.” Famous for his straight-talking style, Clarkson later scores big laughs telling Bana “all muscle cars are crap.”
Biggest asset is Bana’s likability. The actor is widely admired Down Under for his self-deprecating humor and shunning of the limelight, and his unpretentious manner and sincerity go a long way toward smoothing out the docu’s frequent bumpy passages.
Filmed with all the helmet-cams and car-cams ESPN could ever demand, the exciting race visuals back up Bana’s claim that driving fast gives him a focus and intensity he doesn’t find elsewhere. Material culled from multiple sources is muscularly edited by Conor O’Neill (“Murderball”), and a soundtrack of Oz rock favorites keeps the tempo ticking.