Illustrated Family Doctor, The

March 3rd, 2005 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

Written and Directed By Kriv Stenders

Starring Samuel Johnson, Colin Friels, Kestie Morassi, Jessica Napier, Sacha Horler

‘I hate to wax lyrical and sound like a spin doctor with all that PR and bullshit,’ says Samuel Johnson, laid back in his manner but unusually effusive when describing his relationship with Illustrated Family Doctor writer/director Stenders, ‘I know they all say how wonderful it was working with the director, but Kriv’s a very passionate first time director working on a film everyone’s wanted to make for a long time.’

What was it about Stenders that Johnson liked that isn’t ‘PR bullshit’? ‘I needed to be convinced that such a strange script could be transferred to film and he convinced me,’ Johnson says simply.

Speaking from a Sydney hotel room where he’s fielded calls from journalists all day long (and which still hasn’t ended, the phone ringing three times during our discussion), the Sydney actor — well known for his role as Evan Wylde in TV’s Secret Life of Us — only gets serious when asked about how he worked with director Stenders.

Otherwise, he’s as casual about his job as a brickie looking forward to knocking off for a beer. I ask him if he’s likely (or interested) in being the next Eric Bana/Russell Crowe/Hugh Jackman superstar export. After a hearty laugh as if he finds the notion ridiculous, he replies; ‘I’m not made of that kind of material. I’m not that ambitious. I figure if I wanted to even learn another accent by now I could have.’

So is he going to chase movies consciously now instead of TV, or just let come what may? ‘Any actor will tell you they prefer films,’ Johnson says, ‘Especially me because I can’t do anything for too long, I just get restless and toey after awhile. In TV, you don’t have the luxury of time. On day one [of Illustrated Family Doctor], we’d already rehearsed it so thoroughly.’

But the big questions on everyone’s lips who’s taken any notice of the performance of Australian movies for the last two years is; will it turn things around? There’s no lame comic theme, no sweetness and light love interest, no washed up former comedy star in a token role — so far so good. What does Johnson think?

‘I don’t think one film can change the so-called plight of Australian films,’ he says, ‘but then I don’t know enough about it. Maybe we should knock back scripts until they’re ready.’

So with the director, financiers and at least some moviegoers hoping The Illustrated Family Doctor is something new, is it?

The story of a guy with what Johnson terms ‘frailties, a real guy with real problems’, it’s the polar opposite of the Priscilla’s and Strictly Ballrooms of the world. If you want a light romantic comedy, stay away. The Illustrated Family Doctor is about a guy descending rapidly into ill health as his life, relationships and work crumble around him.

It has a maudlin pace as we follow Gary (Johnson) through a series of crises in his personal life. To make matters worse he works at a specialist publisher modelled on Reader Digest that condenses popular books into more accessible form, and his current assignment — the Illustrated Family Doctor, complete with images of every gangrenous and oozing wound you can imagine — that’s turning his stomach.

He tries to connect with colleague and pseudo mentor Ray (Friels) as well as Ray’s beautiful and equally lost daughter Christine (Napier), all the while circumnavigating his boss, all corporate catchphrases and office buffoonery, while feeling worse every day.

It’s more a surrealist expression that a story, with no immediately apparent point or resolution. The pacing is overlong most of the time, and you’re waiting for jokes that never materialise.

The script is nowhere near as atrocious as some of the rubbish you see on screen — from both the US and Australia — but much more effort could have been put into the direction and casting. For his forlorn, lost puppy dog-ness, Johnson is either as laid back with his talent as he is with his career drive or lacks the confidence to carry a lead role, seeming like a long string of potential young Australian leading men that have gone nowhere through lack of charisma.

Stenders also employs too much camerawork trickery to make it artier, like his penchant for positioning the subject off centre in the frame. You can see he’s trying to make the proceedings off centre, but doing it literally is just like those stupid comic strip panels all the way through Ang Lee’s Hulk — they’re just a distracting irritation.

On the upside, The Illustrated Family Doctor does one thing very well. In it’s portrayal of the Info Digest and Gary’s everybody’s-mate boss, it captures Australian corporate life very well, satire criminally underused in Australian movies and only done well once before in recent memory, in The Rage in Placid Lake.

But unfortunately Johnson is right — no one film can revitalise the Australian film field (people are saying there’s not even enough life left in it to call it an ‘industry’ any more). And if it were, The Illustrated Family Doctor isn’t it.

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