Jack Simpson (Mick Molloy) is a Melbourne slacker who uses three bowling club memberships to score cheap parking in the city’s inner south – and to rent parking spaces to his workmates. When he is unexpectedly called up to attend the club and bowl competitively, he finds an unfamiliar world of cheap beer and aged pensioners – and a predatory businessman (John Clarke) looking to replace the club with a venue for poker machines.
It would be easy to move past Paul Moloney’s 2002 comedy Crackerjack without appreciating what a great film it really is. Ostensibly a starring vehicle for comedian Mick Molloy, it has a wonderful and leisurely pace, a distinctive Australian tone, and a couple of showcase performances by some of Australia’s best acting and comedic talent. It falls neatly into one of my favourite sub-genres of comedy cinema: the ‘scrappy band of misfits get together to win a sports tournament’ story. It is a winning formula, seen in Sumo Do Sumo Don’t, Pitch Perfect, and many others, and Australia makes an excellent contribution to the format here.
The relaxed tone of the film suits its lead cast, since Molloy, Clarke, and co-star Judith Lucy are all sketch performers and stand-up comedians rather than honest-to-god actual actors. Their performances are deeply under-stated and casual, and performed largely to type: Molloy playing the beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking slacker, Lucy a biting and cynical observer, and Clarke an untrustworthy and corrupt businessman. Clarke, who sadly passed away in 2017, was a New Zealand-born Australia-residing dual national treasure and arguably this nation’s best-ever political satirist. A career of playing various politicians in exactly the same tone and cadence of voice left him able to play any dramatic role without any variation in style: his audience had been trained not to expect it. The film is also dominated by the late Bill Hunter as Stan: a retiree and keen lawn bowls player. He is never without a near burned-out cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and rich with the desire to tell stories and endless anecdotes. It is a dignified character for one of Australia’s most dignified actors: both charming and heartfelt. It is sad that we have lost both Clarke and Hunter, but this film works as a testament to the charm of both men.
The film is a pitch-perfect exercise in relaxing into a setting, and while its relaxed delivery could come across as dramatically lacking, I feel it works wonderfully in reflecting the similarly easygoing vibe of lawn bowls. The film does not attempt to define the specific rules of the game, but to be honest it is easy to get by with what is provided. The stakes are never particularly high, but the scenes of the members putting in one final effort to win a local championship and save their club from a buy-out are honestly of secondary interest. This is a film that presents wonderful characters – many of them elderly – and enables the audience to spend an hour-and-a-half in their company. The comedy is gently leavened here and there with authentic moments of drama, which only enhance it. It is beautifully calm, warmly humorous, and altogether very, very Australian.