The Merger is a timely feel-good Aussie comedy with a social conscience and a great cast, but is let down by some poor screenwriting.
I was looking forward to The Merger after catching the trailer. Great premise: the Bodgy Creek Roosters, a small-town Aussie Rules footy club on the brink of folding, is rescued when the new coach, Troy (Damian Callinan, also the screenwriter, having adapted the film from his one-man play), recruits some of the local marginalised refugee and immigrant residents to make up depleted numbers, and sets about transforming a hopeless rabble into a winning combination.
You can see where this is going. The foreigners and long-term locals get to know each other as they pursue victory on the football field, one by one the rest of the residents conquer their xenophobia and add their support, and a once-divided town ends up united. Warm fuzzies all round.
Chuck in a personal redemption trajectory for Troy, taunted as “Town Killer” since taking an environmentalist stance that resulted in the shutting down of the local timber mill, a budding romance between him and widow Angie (Kate Mulvany), the tragic backstories of some of the footballing refugees that have even Angie’s blustering anti-“refo” father “Bull” (John Howard – who else?) softening his hard-line attitude, and you have the ingredients for a timely feel-good Aussie comedy with a social conscience and box office hit potential. And that’s just what The Merger sets out to be.
I so wanted to like it. But I have to be honest. I thought it was pretty weak.
The story is predictable and a bit hokey, but that’s not a deal breaker with a comedy of this type.
The cast is generally excellent. The do their darnedest with the material they’re served up. However, and here we come to the problem I found insurmountable, they have their work cut out overcoming a fundamental deficit – the dialogue.
The screenwriter’s land looms large over the characters’ lines (I hate that), many of which are amateurishly try-hard, stacked with forced cleverness and wit, and gags that too often fall flat.
This is painfully evident in some early scenes featuring Angie’s son Neil (Rafferty Grierson), an aspiring doco filmmaker. He’s around 11 years old but is implausibly precocious and annoyingly smart-alecky, speaking with the sophistication of a wryly cynical adult. Much to his credit, Master Grierson still somehow manages to do a good job of his role, despite having to spout off adult lines.
Stage dialogue does not necessarily translate to screen – I suspect The Merger is a case in point. In adapting his play to film it feels as if Damian Callinan has retained much of the original dialogue as is. Dialogue has to work hard on stage. Not so much in film, which is essentially a visual form. Here, too much is asked of the dialogue (which is stagey in its proliferation, and overwrought rather than naturalistic), not enough of the visuals. More visually-based laughs could have been wrung from the on-field football scenes, for example.
Which brings me to another gripe. The filmmakers evidently have only the most basic understanding of Aussie Rules football. There’s a narratively crucial scene in which a player kicks a bouncing goal to win a game after the siren. Once the siren’s sounded, the ball has to go through the goals on the full, guys! Re-write required! It beggars belief that someone in the crew didn’t pick up this clanger. It’s important to get things like this right, given that many of the target audience are sure to be AFL fans.
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There’s another blunder that shouldn’t have made it through. One of the refugees, Sayyid (Fayssal Bazzi), claims to have spent time in Nauru before coming to Australia. As most of us in this country are painfully aware, NO refugees imprisoned on Nauru have been accepted for residency in Australia! Ferchrissake, this is bubblehead stuff.
A last bit of finger-wagging. I doubt there’s a small town footy team anywhere in Australia that doesn’t have some aboriginal members, yet there are none in the Bodgy Creek Roosters. Surely there was place in the film for an indigenous presence or two?
Look, if you can get past the forced dialogue or accept it on its own terms – and it seems plenty of the audience at the screening I attended did – you might buy The Merger and have yourself a rollicking good time. I couldn’t, and didn’t.
Movie Website: https://themergerfilm.com
Australian release date: The Merger at Luna Cinema, Leederville from September 6, 2018
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