Les Patterson Saves the World
It’s true (as everyone knows) that sometimes the situation in which you see a film profoundly affects the way you react to it. In the clear light of day, I would probably admit that Les Patterson Saves the World is not a particularly great movie. But seeing it at the (ahem) World Premiere in Sydney amidst a highly cultured audience of tuxedo-clad artists, performers and representatives from the Australian Film Commission, I definitely warmed to it.
For, as Les himself might say, his film certainly put it up this urbane audience, who walked out murmuring their outrage and disappointment. Reportedly, it even put the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, who was present at that World Premiere, into a foul mood.
Les Patterson Saves the World presents a curious case study. Much publicised before its release, it bombed badly at the Australian box-office within six weeks, and was damned by virtually all reviewers, who evoked the inevitable, unfavourable comparisons and associations. Even in the UK, where comedian-writer-satirist Barry Humphries (the essential auteur here, beyond director George-not-Mad Max-Miller) has a strong cult following, it did no better. Five years after its release, it had not still been blessed with any home-video afterlife or repertory screenings, and had to wait until 2013 for wishful-thinking DVD redemption by the Umbrella company as a “Classic Australian Film”!
Why such a curse? Because this is what the Australian cinema is meant to have left behind in the transition from the Barry McKenzie (another Humphries creation spanning 1960s comics and 1970s film) days, to the Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) period, and beyond. It’s a shamelessly vulgar film, more akin to The Whoopee Boys (John Byrum, 1986) or Porky’s (1981) than Gallipoli (1981) – and it makes Crocodile Dundee (1986) look positively sophisticated by comparison.
Indeed, following that Paul Hogan triumph as another big-budget comedy aimed at the international market, Les Patterson came over only as a charmless, bombastic, carelessly put-together work, incapable of winning audiences either locally or overseas.
In fact, Les Patterson goes all the way down the toilet – which is why I respect it. How right the mediocre, lowbrow humourist Barry Dickens was when he curtly pronounced in the pages of that “journal of record”, Cinema Papers: “Les Patterson Saves the World is crap”.
For the film is relentlessly anal; so-called toilet humour takes on an epic dimension here. The plot – some beat-up hokum involving Les (Humphries) as Australian Ambassador in the revolutionary ferment of the Middle East – begins with an enormous, baked-bean fart from Les which sets a UN delegate on fire, and ends with the US President (Joan Rivers) saved by Les from the unspeakable terror awaiting her on the Presidential toilet seat.
In between, the big moments come when Les is covered (in slow motion, no less) with camel dung; and when the proliferating HELP virus – yes, this is indeed an AIDS-related joke on the film’s part – turns various major and minor characters into disgusting monsters who squirt green liquid from their faces. This last, crowning element of tastelessness – which makes all the gruesome body-horror effects in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) seem humanitarian by comparison – was not likely, in 1987, to win Humphries another extensive interview in Melbourne University’s prestigious literary magazine, Meanjin. But perhaps this is as it should be.
Les Patterson Saves the World is also relentlessly sexist, racist, imperialist … you name it. Some of us have come to expect, by now, scarcely anything different from Humphries; and as long as his ideology hides under the cover of urbane, middle-class satire, it deserves only contempt. But Les Patterson Saves the World, much to my surprise and delight, throws off the tattered remnants of any cultural cloak of respectability – at long last. It seizes for itself the freedom of such vulgar, cartoon-like movies as John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985) – and that film’s vision of a burping, farting monster sporting a crew cut would not out of place here.
Nothing has any claim to being real; everything happens on the level of a sick joke. Even its (imagined) status as a big, money-spinning, export commodity on the world market is mercilessly parodied, in its deliberately absurd materialisations of the Australia (kangaroos and koalas peacefully idling on tram tracks in city and suburban streets) that is projected to other countries. This, too, I respect.
Like Crocodile Dundee, Les Patterson tries (and fails) to be an internationalist blockbuster with many calculated points of generic appeal – something for everyone, as the marketing cliché goes.
The plot is crowded and the tone is high farce, loud and spectacular. In dispassionate, craft terms, part of the undoubted problem of the film’s construction stems from the fact that it aims to be a multi-genre action-comedy (in the vein of other uneasy examples like The Golden Child  and Critical Condition ), with a bit of everything thrown in. So we pass uneasily from elaborately staged gags (such as the revolving-restaurant finale) to supposedly dramatic but terribly perfunctory chase-fight-explosion sequences. There’s a bit of mock-horror in there, too.
Similarly, the cast ranges from broad, comic performers (including Humphries as “virtuoso star player”, Henri Szeps and Pamela Stephenson – the last played up for her funny accent and big breasts) to bland, po-faced ones (Andrew Clarke). Indeed, there’s an interminable parade of “straight” villains and plot-functionaries who raise not a single laugh.
Although this may seem too serious a thought about such a frivolous film – but why not? – there is something way dark, nihilistic and almost suicidal at its heart; at the very least, an intriguing strain of misanthropy. Its humour – in total antithesis to the American, feel-good style mastered by the makers of Crocodile Dundee – is, at every moment, cruel, solipsistic, scatological and deliberately offensive, calculatedly and monumentally “politically incorrect” (as we can be certain Humphries loves to be described). It takes undoubted courage to make such an extreme and potentially unlikeable work, and I salute this courage.
In fact, Humphries’ comedy has always been fuelled by hatred – a secret desire to scandalise and alienate all possible audiences, a monumental screw-you attitude toward everyone and everything. Giving full vent to the darkest side of Humphries' humour, Les Patterson Saves the World mercilessly pillories ordinary people and the cultured bourgeoisie alike, all institutions and values. It blows a massive raspberry at even the mass, general audience it’s presumably designed to reach – well, Humphries has never much liked “normal”, conformist, uncultured Aussies, at least as he has feverishly imagined them to be since the 1950s, a people forever stuck back there in the grey past.
The Australian commentators in 1987 who cautiously praised this film – which amounted to, apart from myself (I received a thank-you note from the director for that!), only music composer Martin Armiger in Xpress (June/July 1987) – linked it to the tradition of vulgar, low comedy that includes Benny Hill and some exploitation cinema, arguing that the film be respected on this level. Armiger hypothesised: “This is a humour so weird that it might take a few years to sink in”, and suggested the film “may prove to have legs”. If only!
© Adrian Martin April 1987 / December 1991