This is a difficult film with which to come to terms. It has an interesting real-life premise, a talented cast, a script that provides a maximum number of interest-points and sub-plots, and a vigorous grasp of Aussie populist attitudes. But, for all that, it is a grindingly mediocre movie.
It is based on the case of Wally Mellish (Colin Friels) who, in 1968, holed himself up in his ramshackle new home with partner Beryl (Jacqueline McKenzie), and kept a large number of law enforcers at bay for eight days. As presented in this movie, Wally is the average Aussie bloke, a bumbler and larrikin with a heart of gold.
Hands up everyone who is already sick to death of syrupy movies about the 1960s – before, during or after the massive loss of innocence that supposedly took place then. Mr Reliable imports many clichés from American pop culture – backed up a soundtrack of mainly US music – to plant such spurious nonsense in an Australian context.
The problem with loss-of-innocence movies is their tendency to flatten out all real social differences. According to these films, everyone the world over (no matter their age, class or station) smoked dope, flirted with free love, had their consciousness raised and threw rocks at the pigs during the summer of love. But Mellish's story simply cannot express this foolish pop-sociological conceit without being considerably mangled in the process.
Mr Reliable (an unfortunate title) suffers from terrible miscasting. Both Friels and McKenzie are skilled, likeable performers. But the story demands lead actors who can convincingly exude a poor white trash air, and these two look like bohemian artists living in an inner-city loft. I often complain about Australian cinema's tendency to get cultural details wrong; Mr Reliable is the apotheosis of this sorry trend.
The film's airy look, and the overly breezy atmosphere built up by director Nadia Tass, do not help matters here. And an audience's suspicion that the blend of comedy and drama just does not gel is reinforced by glaring misjudgments of scripting – such as when Beryl delivers an unlikely soliloquy about how she intends to lie to the media about smoking joints with the cops.
At the point in this story when gawkers and sensation-seeking journalists start arriving and setting up camp at the siege site, I imagined the film was going to be a tart, black comedy along the lines of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951). But nothing of the sort eventuates: with its cute animal jokes, lovable ordinary folks and little-battler pathos, Mr Reliable is the kind of film today labelled Capraesque – except that Frank Capra never made a film as mushy or flabby as this.
Postscript: This review led the film's director, Nadia Tass, to denounce me, in a letter to the Editor of an Australian newspaper, as "lacking in taste, education and mental health" – the proudest compliment of my entire career as a film critic.
© Adrian Martin January 1997