Shirley Barrett, who won the Cannes Camera D’Or with her first feature, “Love Serenade,” proves she is not a one-hit wonder with her splendid sophomore outing, “Walk the Talk,” a bitingly funny, hard-hitting and yet compassionate examination of a bunch of losers on the fringe of showbiz. With something of Robert Altman’s ability to produce quirky humor out of the most unlikely situations, Barrett proves herself a caustic commentator who brings style and vision to her barbed but witty movies. Pic, entirely funded by DreamWorks, after David Geffen reportedly greatly admired “Love Serenade,” should garner critical support and fest kudos but may be a tricky marketing proposition because of its elegantly disenchanted view of humanity. It got off to a good start when it launched the 2000 Brisbane film fest.
Joey Grasso, played with considerable brio by wild-eyed Salvatore Coco, a real discovery in his first major screen role, is basically a hustler. An ex-con whose involvement in an illegal scam involving cellulite got him into trouble, Joey is now living with sweet, trusting Bonita (Sacha Horler), a paraplegic as the result of being severely injured in a motor accident.
Barry (Bille Brown), Bonita’s father, suspects, with some justification, that Joey’s really after the $1 million payout Bonita has received.
Joey is a firm believer that “there’s no such thing as failure.” Almost pathetically sure of himself, he likes to attend self-motivational seminars, and, while listening to a speaker at a Quest for a Higher Self group, he finds himself sitting next to Nikki Raye (Nikki Bennett).
Nikki, daughter of small-time Gold Coast entertainer Marty Raye (Carter Edwards), is a divorced mother of two who wants to be a singer, though her talents prove to be limited as even her father — especially her father — admits. When Joey meets her again, while posing as a security officer to check out the alarm system in her apartment, she confides that she most of all wants to be famous.
Besotted, Joey convinces a reluctant but loyal Bonita he should start a talent agency (Joe Grasso Creative Management) with just one client — Nikki.
A carefully rehearsed appointment with local record producer Phil Wehner (Jon English) ends in disaster, however, when Joey inadvertently ruins an expensive electronic white screen, and Nikki unexpectedly produces a gun to liven up her act. Ultimately, the only booking he can get his client is a lunchtime gig at a bowling club, where she’s sabotaged by her dad’s back-up band and a member of the elderly audience expires during her big number.
Ironically, while Joey struggles to get the less than talented Nikki bookings, he refuses to consider doing the same for poor Bonita, whose singing voice is far superior. He winds up taking drastic action to get Nikki press coverage, and there’s an unexpected resolution in which she finds a different kind of fame than she expected.
Barrett’s very precise and acutely satirical vision of a tacky world of bottom-rung entertainers and clubs where the mostly elderly, retired customers noisily consume plastic food during the musical acts is both witty and compassionate. It would have been easy to demonize Joey, but he’s so sincere and so full of unquestioning belief in his own possibilities that he emerges, thanks to Coco’s delicious performance, as a wonderful character, the type Walter Matthau might once have portrayed. When things go wrong, he visits a nursing home for the very elderly, which somehow makes him feel better, the sort of behavior that helps the audience warm to the character.
Similarly, the audience warms to Nikki, who still looks great though, as her disparaging father observes, her career’s not the only thing that’s sagging, and who, despite all the setbacks, can still look on the positive side, offering to sleep with Joey “as a one-off-thing” because “it’ll probably do you good.” Nikki Bennett, in her acting debut here is, in actuality, a successful club singer — a sharp piece of casting that pays off.
As Bonita, Sacha Horler brings strength to a potentially tricky role. Supporting roles are beautifully limned, especially Carter Edwards as Nikki’s awful father with his ill-fitting toupee, flashy shirts and tired songs; Robert Coleby as the unctuous Pastor Bob; and Jon English as the jaded record producer whose lived-in face suggests a hectic lifetime in the music industry.
Though the Queensland Gold Coast, where “Walk the Talk” is set, is a brassy, gaudy coastal strip of high-rises and casinos, most of the film plays out on the seedy side of the street. The color palette devised by Barrett and d.p. Mandy Walker is mostly confined to pale pastels — pinks, blues and shades of mauve — an effective counterpoint to the brashness on display.
A class act in every department.