May 16th, 2003 Film, Film Features, Xpress

A lot of Australian filmmakers seem fixated on anchoring their stories to distinctly Australian institutions, from drag queens to Christopher Skase.

Even Muriel’s Wedding tapped into the collective musical nostalgia all Aussie thirtysomethings share about Abba music.

And Horse Play — the second local movie of recent times concerning the Melbourne Cup (after The Hard Word) — again tries to say something about human nature set against a landmark of our national character.

As a set piece, it succeeds — portraying the glamour, greed and emotion that orbits Australia’s most important horse race fairly well.

As a story, it’s all over the place. You feel like you’ve been told the whole tale in the first five minutes, courtesy of a voiceover that follows the trials and tribulations of hero Max McKendrick (Graham) as he tries to make it big in the racing world.

Everything that happens after that makes it fell like you’ve walked in halfway through the movie and missed the beginning. The film deals with the buildup to the big race itself, which will be either the redemption or the fall for all involved, but each subplot is so tenuously linked to the next you’ll never quite make up your mind which story you’re supposed to be interested in.

McKendrick marries into a good horse racing family, of which the ubiquitous Bill Hunter (without whom it wouldn’t be an Australian comedy) is the cruel patriarch. Determined to destroy Max, he busts him in a horse-swapping scam and gets him banned. The story (seems to be) about Max’s determination to crawl his way back to the top and have his horse win the Cup.

Throw in a fat loser who hangs around for little reason, Max’s girlfriend on the side, a teenage girl sick of her snotty, bitchy friends, a serial cheater and his (supposedly) ditzy wife, and you’ve got all the makings of six bad movies mercilessly dissected and hammered together into one.

Aside from two or three lead characters, the cast are cartoony add-ons with no realism and very superficial relevance to the story.

Many of the performers are seasoned figures in the Australian entertainment industry and do an adequate job. The editing, photography and costuming all betray professional filmmaking skill, but none of them are enough to rescue a story that feels shredded from the opening minute.

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