Australia, the land once stocked with convicts battling for a second chance, loves the scrappy underdog. Whether it's a pig named Babe, who thinks he's a dog, or an adventurer named Crocodile Dundee, exiled to callous New York City with a huge knife in his belt, the Aussie little guy is king--especially when he takes on overwhelming odds.
The latest incarnation is one Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton), a tow-truck driver from the humble Melbourne suburb of Cooloroo. He's as benighted as Inspector Clouseau and as stubborn as Homer Simpson, but Darryl's the hero of The Castle nonetheless: a bumbling family man who jousts with big government and big business when they try to take his home from him.
Little matter that the Kerrigans' abode is an untidy pile of bricks and boards sporting a fake chimney up top and a ramshackle greyhound kennel out back. Little matter that it sits under the airport's flight path and in the shadow of power lines. It's everything to plucky Darryl Kerrigan, his wife Sal (Anne Tenney) and their four children, including Dale (Stephen Curry), the movie's none-too-bright narrator. And when the powers that be threaten to take the place (the airport's expanding), Darryl digs in like a mule. A man's home is...well, you know.
Aussie movie humor has never been exactly polished, and The Castle's director and cowriter, Rob Sitch, probably won't be confused with high stylists like Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks. His brand of comedy galumphs along on blunt jests like Darryl's rave reviews for his wife's meat loaf recipe and his son Steve's ridiculous habit of picking up "bargains" from the classified section--even though all the stuff is completely useless. Darryl's daughter Tracey (Sophie Lee) is the pride of the family because she's graduated from hairdresser's school; when she returns from her honeymoon she marvels to her folks about the airline food and the in-flight music channels.
Simply said, the Kerrigans are a sweet and dopey bunch bound together by family love. Director Sitch and his three cowriters, probably without knowing it, sometimes condescend to their hero in a way that the greatest populist of them all, Frank Capra, would never have dreamed of doing: The Castle has a lot more Ma and Pa Kettle or Beverly Hillbillies in it than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
But once Darryl advises his lawyer, a rumpled inept named Dennis DeNuto (the terrific Tiriel Mora) to "Tell 'em to get stuffed," and the legal hostilities quickly escalate, you have no doubt whose side you're on--unless you happen to be George Steinbrenner or Slobodan Milosevic. Darryl's colorful neighbors, a Lebanese immigrant named Farouk (Costas Kilias) and a geezer called Jack (Monty Maziels), add color to the picture. While Darryl's lawyer haplessly pleads their case to a judge on the basis of the Australian constitution's "vibe," and Darryl insults everyone in the room, we can't help hoping that Don Quixote will win the day against the windmills Down Under.
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Don't bet against him--at least not in the appellate court, when an interested bystander (Charles "Bud" Tingwell) takes up the cause.
These moviemakers faced long odds themselves. Made in sixteen millimeter, The Castle originally had a twenty-day shooting schedule, but when Sitch and company realized their catering service would run out before that, they cut back to eleven days and brought the movie in for under a million dollars--just about what Mel Gibson spends each week on beer and haircuts. Despite its humble beginnings, the picture was a smash in Australia in 1997 and an audience hit at Sundance the next year. In other words, life imitates art on a shoestring, then goes wide at the multiplexes.
The rustic charms of The Castle are sure to enchant the big audiences that gathered around The Full Monty (about lovable Englishmen who find new careers doing striptease) and Waking Ned Devine (about lovable Irishmen who find new careers conning millions from the government). If anything, Michael Caton--who even looks like Peter Sellers's Clouseau, right down to the twitching mustache--provides an even more appealing character. With his appalling blind spots and bottomless optimism, Darryl Kerrigan makes for a magnetic Everyman and a worthy representative of lost causes near and far. Aussie excess has rarely looked so good.
Directed by Rob Sitch. Screenplay by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch. Starring Michael Caton, Anne Tenney, Tiriel Mora, Stephen Curry and Charles "Bud" Tingwell.