This film is a cocktail of disparate influences. It’s a Brit-Australian production, the first feature movie directed by short film and music video director – and muso – Andrew Lancaster, based on the Connecticut childhood of Australian-based American dancer-and-choreographer-turned-screenwriter Brian Carbee, but filmed in the Sydney suburbs of West Pymble and St Ives, with one American star (Geena Davis) and an Aussie cast of mostly unknown actors feigning American accents! [pause for breath]
Yep, this is one complex cocktail – and it doesn’t work.
Right from the start, it doesn’t ring true that the locale is America – the houses are so identifiably Aussie! But OK…not a huge deal.
The big problem is the script. Many writers in the early phases of their careers base their stories on their own lives, and that’s fine – but a well-developed literary sensibility is required to take the stuff of real life and transform it into a coherent narrative that functions well as a fictionalized story. Carbee falls a long way short of pulling this off here.
The movie begins with a scene from the early childhood of protagonist Billy Conway, in which he witnesses a neighbour accidentally burning himself to death on his front lawn. This is accompanied by a voiceover narration that is very Desperate Housewives – uncomfortably so.
But where the writers of Desperate Housewives (surely among the sharpest in the business) bring off a unique tonal balance that straddles black comedy, soap and sorta serious suburban drama, Carbee’s scripting lacks focus and direction, and his tone is blurred. And the intro voiceover narrative goes on for far too long – so long, that the actors seem almost redundant at times. In fact, there’s a strong sense that the writing is not tuned into the movie genre, that it is more novelistic than filmic in privileging word over image. ‘Show, not tell’ is the great indisputable dictum for writers of theatre and film. Carbee seems to have gotten it the wrong way round.
As a black comedy, Accidents Happen is fatally flawed – it ain’t funny! This is partly because the subject material just doesn’t lend itself to humorous treatment. As the title suggests, accidents are a major part of the movie…mostly car accidents. Serious ones, in which people die or are rendered permanently comatose, and which have horrendous effects on the surviving members of the families. Even an accomplished writer at the top of their game would be challenged wringing comedy out of this raw material. Carbee doesn’t come close.
Geena Davis does her best to elevate the comic elements, but her many one-liner cracks are soooo try-hard. They would probably work OK in a novel, but for film…nup. Too fast, too contrived. And in too many instances, forced.
e.g. “You could have knocked me over with a dessert spoon and then eaten me with it.”
The other actors are competent (up-and-comer Harrison Gilbertson stands out as Billy), with the exception of Erik Thomson, who gets the gong for the worst Aussie attempt at an American accent in living memory.
The tonal problems – in fact, most of the film’s many problems – derive from an identity crisis: this is a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Three quarters of the way through, the black comedy mantle drops away and the movie finally finds its true direction as a study of the devastating psychological effects of fatal road accident trauma on surviving family members. At this point, when it lets go of its black comedy posture, it finds some real emotional power.
But alas, it is all too late to save the film, and you’re left pondering what might have been and wishing that a decent editor had recognised the script for what it is – an amateurish draft from a fledgling screenwriter that is multiple re-workings (or whatever) short of ready. No direction, cinematography or acting performance (Geena – what were you thinking?) can overcome that handicap.
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