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Live, Baby, Live

Some of the people who helped bring you dank, morose amusements such as The Crow, Dark City, and The Matrix have a new movie to offer. Like The Matrix, it features a dork who flies through the air. As in Dark City, we witness the protagonist's world radically changing shape around him. And like The Crow, our hero possesses no fashion sense whatsoever. It also shares with its forebears the theme of shedding an old identity and claiming a new existence amid harrowing circumstances. But fans of black leather and brooding may wish to consider that Danny Deckchair is a breezy romantic comedy, boasting a shameless silly streak.

The dependably kooky Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) plays Danny Morgan, a Sydney-based blue-collar fellow, quite possibly afflicted with ADD, who enjoys doing absurd things such as camping. He shares a house with his fussbudget girlfriend, a real estate climber named Trudy (the very funny Justine Clarke). Since Trudy is a woman over 20 and therefore doesn't like camping, Danny becomes frustrated and launches himself toward the stratosphere via huge yellow helium balloons attached to a lawn chair.

Ifans is actually Welsh, and English is his second language, but his feigned Australian accent remains plausible throughout most of this enterprise. He also sits pretty in some fine special-effects shots. As intrepid Danny and his chair swooped over the Sydney skyline, one randomly recruited audience member directly behind me -- let's call him the Shouter -- exclaimed, "That's tight!" Both American expatriate writer-director Jeff Balsmeyer and veteran Australian producer/visual-effects expert Andrew Mason should be happy to note that their crowd-pleaser actually pleases crowds.

It ain't all about the zany stunt, though. Danny's flying chair carries him to a verdant country town called Clarence, where fireworks for the local macadamia festival send him plummeting into the backyard of winsome bachelorette Glenda Lake (The Lord of the Rings' Miranda Otto). Will the two fall in love? Heck, does Vegemite taste weird?

Danny's sudden appearance stirs much gossip among the denizens of Clarence, who are all dutifully called by name even though most of them don't advance the narrative a lick. Glenda attempts to pass Danny off as her former professor, allows him to crash in her cozy, sun-drenched bungalow (the cinematography by Martin McGrath is top-notch), and brings him to the macadamia festival's semiformal ball, which plays like a delirious Baz Luhrmann sequence.

Up to this point, Danny appears to be wearing a Tom Petty disguise, but the hapless construction worker somehow manages to give himself a perfect shave and a pert coiffure in Glenda's bathroom, the better to win the affections of his hostess. Even stranger, he remains unfazed by the terrible conflict of interests she represents -- this comely, creative, intelligent lady also happens to be employed, loathsomely, as Clarence's uncompromising meter maid.

All manner of broad situational dramedy unfolds, including a political skirmish that prompts Danny to earn the people's trust via his astounding bricklaying skills. This eventually leads to his doing some cheesy, sub-Springsteen speechifying on behalf of "the little guy" as Glenda beams at him with industrial-strength awe and passion, as if he's suddenly morphed into Norma Rae or something. This rings quite false and drives well beyond the point of farce, though the movie doesn't seem to notice.

Meanwhile, speaking of tonal incongruities, we also return to schizoid Trudy in Sydney, busily juggling a media circus inspired by Danny's sudden departure. Although we have witnessed her constantly insulting Danny and deceitfully carrying on with a wannabe television news icon (Rhys Muldoon), once Danny is actually gone, she weeps in agony and practices two-bit starfucking techniques with the smarmy newshound. Why Danny would even consider returning is quite puzzling.

There are other clinkers, such as a scene involving an annoying exhibitionist and a weird remake of an INXS hit (why not use the hometown heroes' original?), but overall Danny Deckchair provides charming chuckles for fans of other Australian comedies such as The Dish or The Castle. Much of this can be attributed to Otto's convincingly playing the perfect woman, with Ifans playing the bumbler who makes good. Reteaming these two after their success in Human Nature was a wise move.

The setting also provides much appeal, with the constraints of Hollywood-style streamlining and tightening happily lifted. This fictional Clarence is a breath of fresh air, and during the scene involving a community pancake breakfast, the Shouter had this to say: "I wish I was there!" Indeed.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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