Charlie & Boots has been touted as the next great Australian film, and the media push around its national opening has been pretty spectacular. I stayed away precisely because of the push, but I went to see it more or less by accident the other night in an almost-empty cinema. I’m so glad I did. Charlie & Boots is an utter hoot, and it’s like coming home: Hoges has found his feet once more.
Did you ever watch The Paul Hogan Show back in the days when Hoges was the acceptable face of Winfield cigarettes? Much as I cherish Aunty Jack as a role model, The Paul Hogan Show was easily the funniest thing on Australian television in the 1970s. Admittedly the competition was not intense, but Hoges had the gifts of the light comic touch, plenty of good material and a profound understanding of his audience. Crocodile Dundee used the same formula to international good effect, but his later efforts never seemed to keep all the plates in the air.
Now, it seems he’s rediscovered his roots. More than just a road trip, Charlie & Boots is un hommage to rural Australia: our intrepid father-and-son duo manage avoid every major city on their way from Victoria to Cape York to go fishing. On the way they meet a host of individuals, most of whom are so utterly convincing that it’s hard to believe they’re actors.
This authenticity is a joy after the paralysing self-consciousness which usually affects Australian film. Refreshingly, this movie seems to be pitched at people who don’t live in expensive inner-city terrace housing and don’t actually care who edits The Monthly. No character – not even the terrifying lady truck driver or the beastly teenager Tristan – is left utterly humiliated, a stooge for the mockery of the chattering classes. I can smell chai latte confusion: “What? The son isn’t gay? The family actually heals? What kind of Australian comedy is this?”
This is what sets this movie apart: it’s like the Slash-and-Burn school never existed. Usually Australian comedy mimics American comedy, and the trend there involves a high degree of personal humiliation and the relentless milking of any joke for every last wheeze until even the dumbest person in the audience is able to grunt at it. But in Charlie & Boots, this never happens. The reward of this light touch is that every character and situation in the film remains pleasantly intact. You get a laugh, but then you are allowed to move on.
I was prepared to find Paul Hogan annoying and Hollywoodish, but instead he just looks and acts like a tired old man, which, to my astonishment (and some counting on my fingers and allowing for facelifts), he actually is. Shane Jacobson, who plays his son, does so with real depth; it’s not a one-joke movie about a guy and his waistline (or lack thereof). Even the bit where Boots’ real name is revealed is carried through with deftness and hilarity, and then left well alone. The comedic timing is impeccable, and the film never drags.
It’s also part-fairytale, and critics who jibed at the character of Jess clearly didn’t get this. Yes, there is a deeper meaning to the road trip, and there’s one dramatic scene which is just superb, on a dirt road in Queensland with a broken-down car. But guess what – next morning they get a tow, and the tragedy turns into one of the funniest parts of the movie, especially when the motorbike cop intervenes. At the end of the movie (enlivened by a lovely performance from Roy Billing), you are not given a "happy ending", but rather the sense that things are now better than they were, and life will be able to go on, regardless of any ups and downs which come along.
Oh look, just go and see it, especially if you’ve ever had a cranky old dad, or a neighbour who plays bowls or flies light aircraft, or a friend who reads aloud from tourist brochures, or a brother who snores. It’s got toilet jokes, no sex, very little swearing, a sound explanation of the nutritional content of dim sims, some dirty limericks, plenty of scenery, and an extra bit at the very end of the credits which is worth staying for. You’ll love it.