I’ve been in prison longer than Johnny Cash,” exclaims the hero of this quixotic combination road movie, prison picture, country music celebration and all-around charmer of a film, the third from dentist-turned-director Chris Kennedy (after “Glass” and “This Won’t Hurt a Bit”). Relaxed and entertaining, with interesting, likable characters, a smart sense of humor and attractive songs, “Doing Time for Patsy Cline” bowls cheerfully along, and though it may not have the impact of some of the higher-profile Aussie films of recent years, it’s likely to make quite a few friends along the way and rack up useful sales.
Sweet-natured comedy is about naive teenager Ralph (Matt Day), determined to make his mark on the country music scene. His hard-working parents, who operate a run-down farm in the middle of nowhere, scrape together enough money for his air ticket to Nashville, but he has to hitch a ride from the outback to far-off Sydney to catch the plane.
He’s picked up by Boyd (Richard Roxburgh), a slick operator driving a stolen Jaguar and apparently involved in drug-running. Ralph only has eyes for Boyd’s gorgeous companion, the redheaded, green-eyed Patsy (Miranda Otto), who tells him she was named after Patsy Cline. Unlikely as it sounds, this setup is reminiscent of the sequence in “Pinocchio” in which the young hero, heading off for school, falls under the influence of the fox and the cat — Roxburgh is certainly fox-like as the duplicitous Boyd, and Otto kittenish as the divine Patsy.
Before long, the police catch up with the travelers, Patsy manages to get away, and Boyd accuses the hapless Ralph of car theft and possession of the drugs. The pair are held in a small-town lockup awaiting charges. In the adjacent cell are three tough guys, described as the Brothers Grimm, who pass the time of day playing and singing country numbers, and soon Ralph has befriended them, as well as a kindly young policeman whose honeymoon trip to America proves to have unexpected ramifications for Ralph. Meanwhile, flashes into the future reveal that eventually Boyd, Patsy and Ralph make it to Nashville and score success with a song by Ralph.
At times the pic’s fractured structure is disconcerting, the Nashville scenes leaving little room for suspense in the Australian part of the story. But overall the charm of the film works its spell, and director Kennedy shows confidence in juggling understated comedy and gently sentimental drama.
More driven by character than by plot, pic works because of a trio of first-rate performances. As the charmingly roguish Boyd, Roxburgh (“Children of the Revolution”) is given a lot of good lines and makes the most of them with a personality at times similar to that of the young Errol Flynn. Otto, who also stars in this year’s Aussie competition entry in Cannes, “The Well,” and who last year was in the Camera d’Or winner, “Love Serenade,” is scintillating as Patsy, and proves to have an attractive singing voice. Day is relaxed and suitably gauche as the innocent who takes the rap for a crime he didn’t commit.
The supporting cast is filled with top-notch cameos, notably Annie Byron and Roy Billing as Ralph’s long-suffering parents, Tom Long as a surprisingly gentle young police officer and Tony Barry, Kiri Paramore and Laurence Coy as the three scruffy inmates.
Peter Best’s music makes a positive contribution. All other credits, including Andrew Lesnie’s photography and Roger Ford’s production design, are pro, with the Nashville scenes looking convincing (though only exteriors were filmed in the music capital, by a second unit).