Capturing the anarchic, reign-of-chaos comic spirit of Australian writer John Birmingham’s 1994 novel — for better or worse — “He Died With a Felafel in His Hand” depicts a generation approaching 30 and struggling to make its mark on the world with little sense of commitment or focus. Piloted by a likeably deadpan turn from ever-reliable Noah Taylor, this carousel ride of bizarre characters and out-of-control situations rarely remains stationary long enough to allow its themes to gel fully, but gradually coalesces into a reasonably satisfying whole. Limited theatrical play should segue to greater rewards on the ancillary route.
By far the most distinctive aspect of writer-director Richard Lowenstein’s film is its wryly sardonic but perceptive grasp of the particular zeitgeist and physical feel of the three vastly different settings — Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney — where the frenetic action unfolds. Brisbane’s subtropical climate inspires unpredictably lame-brained, sunstruck behavior; Melbourne’s wintry, indoorsy mood lends itself to indolence, introspection, half-baked political causes and claustrophobia; and seaside Sydney comes across as a wannabe Los Angeles, peopled by superficial body culture slaves and dedicated hedonists.
Having lived in 49 shared-house situations during his young life, Danny (Taylor) has been subjected to the dizzying stimulus of an endless succession of oddball housemates and constantly changing environments. Still puzzling over the departure of his girlfriend six months after her exit, he obsesses about finding his purpose in life, toying with the idea of becoming a writer.
In an overpopulated Brisbane household overflowing with testosterone, the closest thing available to a voice of reason is savvy Sam (Emily Hamilton). But her attentions are soon monopolized by intense, free-spirited Eurobabe Anya (Romane Bohringer). When debt-collectors close in demanding months of unpaid rent, and the house is trashed during a wild winter solstice party, Danny flees south. In Melbourne, Sam turns up on his doorstep depressed following the burnout of her relationship with Anya, falling into Danny’s bed after a suicide attempt. Immoderate credit card spending and antsy cops soon prompt another hasty escape.
Final, perhaps most cohesive section takes place in Sydney, where Danny lives with self-absorbed bulimic actress Nina (Sophie Lee) and gay Dirk (Francis McMahon) fresh out of the closet and riddled with persecution complexes. Danny’s undefined but warm relationship with Sam remains the only relatively stable factor in his life until Anya resurfaces to reinstall chaos.
The absurdist humor and messy, freewheeling narrative approach of Birmingham’s novel don’t entirely lend themselves to linear storytelling. But the film more or less comes together in the closing chapter. The enjoyable, but too unrelenting, quirks here become secondary to Danny’s emotional connection to Sam, who articulates some confronting truths about him, and his exasperated response to his egocentric housemates. Perhaps most important is his friendship and sensitive dealings with Flip (Brett Stewart), a junky whose dependency caught him unawares, and who eventually expires in front of the TV while eating Middle Eastern takeout, supplying the book and film’s title.
Taylor’s wiry presence gives the multicharacter piece more of an anchor than it might otherwise have had, gradually shifting from lazy, indifferent detachment to thoughtfulness as he reveals hidden emotional layers. Hamilton makes a sympathetic female lead despite her character’s underexposure. The remaining cast have fun playing exaggerated eccentrics. Lowenstein’s deployment of a different tone to underline the contrasts between each of the three cities is mirrored by the varied ways talented lenser Andrew de Groot’s lights and shoots each setting. The mix is capped off by a lively soundtrack of well-chosen vocals.