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Burning Man

Grief doesn't rate high among emotional states suited to high-octane presentation; hence the disconnect between excessive style and sober content in "Burning Man," a feature-length montage posing as a serious drama about loss and anger.

With:
Tom - Matthew Goode
Sarah - Bojana Novakovic
Karen - Essie Davis
Sally - Kerry Fox
Miriam - Rachel Griffiths
Oscar - Jack Heanly

Grief doesn’t rate high among emotional states suited to high-octane presentation; hence the disconnect between excessive style and sober content in “Burning Man,” a feature-length montage posing as a serious drama about loss and anger. Directed with undue exertion by Jonathan Teplitzky — whose screenplay suggests much less effort — this flashy, empty contraption stars Matthew Goode as a tantrum-prone blowhard made more so by a spouse’s recent death. We’re meant to feel his pain; the pain experienced, however, is unintended. Pic won’t do much for the thesp’s rising star, which nevertheless will help iffy theatrical sales and more-likely ancillary prospects.

Opening montage of highlights to come — in a movie that often seems entirely comprised of histrionic and aesthetic crescendos — posits “Burning Man” as a flashback of events reeling through the mind of Tom Keaton (Goode). Yet another episode of road rage has resulted in the upscale Sydney restaurant chef being pinned upside down in his VW, with a very immediate threat of death by gasoline fire. (The framing device turns out to be a complete red herring.)

Poor Tom has been running around like the proverbial headless chicken since wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) died of cancer, although from what we see, he wasn’t much easier to get along with before tragedy struck. He’s mad at the world, and not acting very responsibly toward 8-year-old son Oscar (Jack Heanly), sister-in-law Karen (Essie Davis) and several women he’s presumably shagging to dull the pain. Myriad gratuitous sex scenes lend “Burning Man” a raunchy patina; apart from being Tom’s match in brattiness, Sarah is principally defined by her incessant toplessness. We have to take it for granted that they love their child, despite seldom acting like parents; it is clear, however, that they deserve each other.

Yet it’s clearer still that Teplitzky (“Better Than Sex”) means us to find Sarah the perfect woman, and Tom the rakish bad-boy who simply feels too much and acts superior to everyone because he is. Script is said to be autobiographical, though press notes reveal only that when he worked for his chef brother, the director was considered the “rudest waiter in Sydney.” The movie likewise treats Tom’s obnoxiousness as a proud badge of individualism.

Goode has certainly proven himself capable elsewhere, but the fawning camera acts as if this were his personal vanity project. Encouraged to preen, force charm and combust repeatedly, the actor can’t rise above his material. Novakovic appears out of her depth. Supporting players are solid, but character writing (let alone fresh dialogue) is not a strength here.

With its scrambled chronology, editorial/visual acrobatics and equally over-the-top musical cues (heavenly choirs duly break out), “Burning Man” can’t leave well enough alone for a second; Teplitzky overcooks every aspect of the film, including cheap jokes that trivialize two late scenes that tie together major plot points.

Tech and design aspects are shiny. For the record, pic has nothing to do with the Nevada desert festival of the same name.

Popular on Variety

Burning Man

Australia

Production: A Paramount Pictures, Transmission Films and Screen Australia in association with Screen NSW, Filmbox and Latitude Media presentation of a Meercat Prods. and Archer Street production. (International sales: Filmbox, Sydney.) Produced by Jonathan Teplitzky, Andy Paterson. Executive producers, Daria Jovicic, Cedric Jeanson, Sam Tromans. Directed, written by Jonathan Teplitzky.

Crew: Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Garry Phillips; editor, Martin Connor; music, Lisa Gerrard; production designer, Steven Jones-Evans; art director, Sophie Nash; set decorator, Christopher Bruce; costume designer, Lizzy Gardiner; sound (Dolby Digital), David Lee; supervising sound editor, Andrew Plain; re-recording mixers, Gethin Creagh, Andy Wright, Peter Climpson; assistant director, Margie Beattie; casting, Nikki Barrett. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9, 2011. Running time: 109 MIN.

Cast: Tom - Matthew Goode
Sarah - Bojana Novakovic
Karen - Essie Davis
Sally - Kerry Fox
Miriam - Rachel Griffiths
Oscar - Jack HeanlyWith: Kate Beahan, Gia Carides, Martha Dusseldorp, Dan Wylie, Anthony Hayes, Garry McDonald, Lech Mackiewicz.

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