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Horseplay

A racetrack comedy-thriller, "Horseplay" is weighed down by sluggish plotting and a lack of genuine zest, diminishing this potentially amusing follow-up to the 2000 local hit, "Russian Doll." If given the right push, pic could be fast out of the starting gate, but the running is likely to be heavy before the race is over. Ancillary looks bright.

With:
Max Mackendrick - Marcus Graham Alicia - Tushka Bergen Henry Raynes - Jason Donovan Barry Coxhead - Bill Hunter Jade - Natalie Mendoza Becky - Abbie Cornish Grace Raynes - Amanda Douge Cindy Portman - Alyssa McClelland Roman - Robert Menzies Seamus - Jacek Koman Gilles - Damien Richardson Ed Crow - Craig Beamer Mr. Portman - Terence Donovan Mrs. Portman - Suzy Cato Narrator - Hugo Weaving

A racetrack comedy-thriller, “Horseplay” is weighed down by sluggish plotting and a lack of genuine zest, diminishing this potentially amusing follow-up to their 2000 local hit, “Russian Doll,” by producing-directing-writing team Stavros Kazantzidis and Allanah Zitserman. If given the right push, pic could be fast out of the starting gate, but the running is likely to be heavy before the race is over and ancillary looks brighter than theatrical, despite film’s widescreen format.

For a film that promises to be a pleasant, undemanding entertainment, “Horseplay” is surprisingly violent at times, and also prone to excessive use of the F-word; neither element will endear it to the kind of middle-of-the-road audience that might have supported it in the multiplexes.

Since it’s really not aimed at the youth audience, despite the presence of the bitchiest teenage girls since “Muriel’s Wedding,” this is a major liability. Kazantzidis and Zitserman exhibit a welcome, decidedly jaundiced view of Aussie society and icons, but the film has a bitter subtext that diminishes the comedy.

Marcus Graham plays Max Mackendrick who has horse racing in his blood and ambition to spare. His way into the closed club of Melbourne’s racing fraternity is to marry the snobby Alicia (Tushka Bergan), daughter of the city’s No. 1 trainer, Barry Coxhead (Bill Hunter). But Barry sees through Max immediately and makes it clear that he can’t stand his son-in-law and is only waiting for him to slip up. Barry, whose ruthlessness is depicted by an insert in which we see a jockey who refused to throw a race for him blown to smithereens by a car bomb, is a formidable enemy.

And it’s not long before Max has made the fatal mistake of trying to fix a race with a ring-in. (“Some consider race fixing a great Australian tradition,” remarks narrator Hugo Weaving in a commentary that has all the indications of an attempt to paper over some plot deficiencies.) He’s banned from racing for life, which spoils Alicia’s social life (she’s dumped from the A list) and seriously affects their marriage. (“You ruined my life!,” she complains.) Max reacts by spending bed time with old flame Jade (Natalie Mendoza).

But all the assets supposedly owned by Max and Alicia, including their house, are actually owned by Barry, so Max is desperate to get some cash of his own, and seeks help from his friend and legal adviser, Henry (Jason Donovan). Though married to Grace (Amanda Douge), Alicia’s best friend, Henry is a serious womanizer and lusts after the teenage Cindy (Alyssa McClelland) who lives next door. Cindy, who has too much money and who, together with her girlfriends, is an egregious social climber, falls foul of one of her contemporaries, the more grounded Becky (Abbie Cornish), whose dad is a cop. By this time, the film is already carrying almost more characters than it can comfortably bear, but there’s more. Henry and Grace have a mysterious friend, Ed (Craig Beamer), who may or may not be gay; Alicia’s ex, Charles (Mark Owen-Taylor) still lusts after her; and Max’s buddy, Gilles (Damien Richardson), an Elvis freak, is also involved. Jade suggests Max kill his wife for her insurance (“Have you seen ‘Double Indemnity?’ ” she asks him), but instead he decides to try again to fix a race. His plan is to get a pair of bad guys (Robert Menzies, Jacek Koman) to kidnap the wife (Krista Vendy) of Barry’s jockey who is riding the favorite in the Melbourne cup, Australia’s biggest horse race.

With all these characters and subplots, it’s no wonder that the film gets bogged down. Despite some genuinely amusing scenes, there’s too much plot and too little genuine wit, and though the cast members are more than willing, the film gets tedious and seems longer than it actually is.

All technical credits are top of the range, which makes the disappointing end result even more regrettable.

Horseplay

Market / Australia

Production: A Buena Vista Intl. (Australia) release of an Australian Film Finance Corp.-Macquarie Film Corp. presentation of a Mushroom Pictures-4 Horsemen production, in association with Showtime Australia, Film Victoria. (International sales: Beyond Films, Sydney.) Produced by Allanah Zitserman. Executive producers, Bruno Charlesworth, Martin Fabinyi, Michael Gudinski. Directed by Stavros Kazantzidis. Screenplay, Kazantzidis, Allanah Zitserman.

Crew: Camera (Cinevex color, Panavision, widescreen), David Eggby; editor, Andrew MacNeil; music, Nigel Westlake; production designer, Paddy Reardon; art director, Simon McCutcheon; costume designer, Edie Kurzer; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Grace; assistant director, Brendan Campbell; casting, Shauna Wolifson. Reviewed at Hoyts screening room, Fox Studios, Sydney, Sept. 30, 2002. (In Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With: Max Mackendrick - Marcus Graham Alicia - Tushka Bergen Henry Raynes - Jason Donovan Barry Coxhead - Bill Hunter Jade - Natalie Mendoza Becky - Abbie Cornish Grace Raynes - Amanda Douge Cindy Portman - Alyssa McClelland Roman - Robert Menzies Seamus - Jacek Koman Gilles - Damien Richardson Ed Crow - Craig Beamer Mr. Portman - Terence Donovan Mrs. Portman - Suzy Cato Narrator - Hugo WeavingWith: Christina Collard, Elizabeth Sandy, Mark Owen-Taylor, Krista Vendy.

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