Sun, surf, sand, sex and the seaside Gold Coast suburbs in the '70s. What a combination. Swinging Safari is every bit as over-the-top and outrageous as it sounds, but if anyone was going to try and make the chaos work, it's writer-director Stephan Elliott. The man behind The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert knows how to make a splash, paying tribute to Australia and our eccentricities in a manner that's both affectionate and tongue-in-cheek. Accordingly, his latest effort is a knowing love letter to a specific era and the freewheeling way of life that came with it — one spent surrounded by rayon clothes and shag carpets, slathered in sunscreen, chowing down on buckets of KFC and guzzling cask wine.
In a cul-de-sac not far from the Queensland hotspot's scenic shoreline, three families spend their days and nights hopping between backyard parties, beach picnics and any other shenanigans that come about. Over at the Hall household, encyclopaedia salesman Keith (Guy Pearce) and the booze-addled Kaye (Kylie Minogue) can't manage their marital malaise, let alone their rowdy brood of kids. Next door at the Joneses, Rick (Julian McMahon) and Jo (Radha Mitchell) think they're the leaders of the pack, with a sunken conversation pit in the middle of their lounge room to prove it. That leaves Bob and Gale Marsh (Jeremy Sims and Asher Keddie) somewhere in the middle, complete with a daughter, Bec (Chelsea Glaw), who's a hit with the local boys, and a son, Jeff (Atticus Robb), who constantly has a camera in his hands.
With Elliot himself a child of the 1970s, there's no escaping Swinging Safari's partly autobiographical nature. In fact, it's an adult Jeff (voiced by Richard Roxburgh) that narrates the movie, with the aspiring filmmaker looking back on his teenage years. Unsurprisingly, his younger self sometimes struggles to cope with the mayhem around him. While making his own stunt-filled movies helps, he really has eyes for the shy Mellie Jones (Darcey Wilson). Unfortunately, their budding romance hits a snag when their parents' key-swapping antics incite a neighbourhood war. Plus there's the not-so-little matter of the 200-tonne dead whale rotting on the local beach.
Elliott might be turning what he knows into a movie, but diving headfirst into nostalgic memories isn't quite the same as stringing together a great story. Swinging Safari places less focus on its narrative, and pays more attention to moments, mood, outfits and ramping up the fun. With that in mind, the adult cast members are clearly having a ball reliving their younger years (and, in the case of Pearce and Minogue, reuniting nearly 30 years after they left Ramsay Street). Their irreverence and enthusiasm is infectious, even when the jokes don't land. Of course, the film always seems more interested in pushing boundaries of comedy, taste and political correctness than it is in fleshing out its characters.
If Swinging Safari teaches viewers one thing, it's that fickle entertainment and amusement were high on everyone's agenda in '70s Australia, while seriousness and subtlety most definitely were not. The result is a movie that can't stuff its frames with enough raucous one-liners, polyester jumpsuits or instances of a woman urinating on a jellyfish-stung child. When that doesn't work, the crew – many of whom date back to Priscilla – helps pick up the slack with their attention to bright, sunny period detail. Oscar-winning costume designer Lizzy Gardiner is one of them, and while it's usually not a good sign when the outfits steal the show, her outlandish creations hit the garish spot.