A cheerfully vulgar, consistently amusing and sometimes hilarious parody of life in a suburban Aussie cul-de-sac in the mid-1970s, “Swinging Safari” might just as easily have been titled “The Ice Storm Goes Berserk Down Under.” This partly autobiographical tale by writer-director Stephan Elliott (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) misfires occasionally but rattles along so quickly audiences never have to wait too long before the next laugh-out-loud moment. With a terrific cast that includes Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue giving it everything they’ve got, and lovely performances by Atticus Robb and Darcey Wilson as sensitive teenagers observing their parents’ irresponsible behavior, “Safari” should please plenty of viewers and appeal particularly to those in the Baby Boomer and Gen-X demographics when released locally on Jan. 18. International niche exposure is not out of the question.
As he did so winningly in “Priscilla” and 1997’s unfairly overlooked outback comedy “Welcome to Woop Woop,” Elliott celebrates Australian identity with genuine love while simultaneously roasting it over the coals of no-holds-barred satire and parody. Embedded within its caricatures and gaudy visuals is an accurate picture of the moods and mores of ’70s middle-class Australia, where a combination of high living standards, plenty of leisure time and a sense of liberation brought on by a socially progressive government inspired many suburbanites to indulge in behavior that seems positively bacchanalian by today’s standards. There’s deliberately no deep-and-meaningful sociology here but the framework is firm.
The film gets off to a zippy start with an adult narrator (Richard Roxburgh) recalling his teenage years in the coastal suburb of Wallaroo, as 14-year-old budding filmmaker Jeff Marsh (Robb), who enlists local kids to perform hilariously dangerous stunts in front of his ever-present Super-8 camera.
Jeff’s father Bob (Jeremy Sims, sporting world-class mutton chops) sells gadgets for the K-Tel company, while his mother Gale (adored local favorite Asher Keddie) “shops, plays tennis and chats a lot.” Across the road live Keith Hall (Pearce), a Funk & Wagnell’s encyclopedia salesman, and Kaye (Minogue), an alcoholic shut-in. The neighborhood’s alpha couple is Rick Jones (Julian McMahon), a peddler of trendy legal drugs and vitamins, and wife Jo (Radha Mitchell), a travel agent who affects the posh British accent that was so prevalent among socially ambitious Australians in bygone days.
After presenting rib-tickling snapshots of Aussie beach culture at the time (chain smoking, non-stop drinking, appalling sunburns, unsupervised children running amok), “Safari” gets to the swinging part of the title with gusto. A disastrous wife-swapping party triggers a war of words and comically violent payback. The coup de grace is a screamingly funny act of public urination that evokes memories of “Desperate Living”-era John Waters.
Balancing the antics of an agreeably grotesque gallery of adults is the sweet friendship of Jeff and Melissa (Wilson), the deep-thinking daughter of Rick and Jo. Both carry scars from being burned by flammable clothing (a reference to the film’s original title “Flammable Children”) and first connect when a 200-ton blue whale beaches itself on the local shore. Drawing a connection between the immovable beast’s tragic fate and their own desire to not get stuck in Wallaroo forever, the youngsters hatch a delightfully spontaneous plan to run away. This nicely written and very well performed story thread suffers only from its relative brevity in the overall scheme of things.
Reuniting with producer Al Clark and many other key “Priscilla” collaborators, Elliott elevates his rowdy and raucous tale with the help of Lizzy Gardiner’s magnificently garish period costumes, Colin Gibson’s supremely kitschy production design and a zingy score by Guy Gross. Art director Jodie Whetter and set decorator Justine Dunn must have had a ball trawling through thrift shops for items like Perkins Paste, a long-disappeared brand of non-toxic Australian adhesive that was famous for being eaten by schoolchildren. In one of countless small moments that older Australian viewers will particularly cherish, a school kid duly downs a dollop of the stuff before Brad Shield’s spot-on widescreen camera captures another delightfully over-the-top, color-saturated moment.