Prolific Australian writer-producer-director Bill Bennett has had one great moment, the unusual thriller Kiss or Kill (1997), in his long, international career. Usually, he alternates between ham-fisted social issue dramas, such as In a Savage Land (1999) and excruciatingly unfunny comedies like Two If by Sea (1996).
The Nugget belongs to the latter group. It is a laboured attempt to make an Aussie comedy about ordinary people, no doubt in homage to The Castle (1997). Bennett spins a predictable, creakily old-fashioned fable about the corrosive effects of instant wealth on families and friendships.
At the start, it shows promise. Lotto (Eric Bana), Wookie (Stephen Curry) and Sue (Dave O'Neil) form the Black Tar Gang, road workers who kill time on the weekends drinking beer and lazily prospecting for gold. When they miraculously discover a huge nugget, they begin planning their early retirement. But there are others lurking who want a piece of the action.
Bennett's films faithfully emulate the worst aspects of Mike Leigh's work. Characters are defined in terms of traits (Sue's laziness) or tics (Lotto's favourite expression, "you're being harsh") that are simply repeated ad nauseam.
The rickety plot built around these supposedly loveable yobbos seems like an afterthought. Familiar comedians including Jean Kittson pop up in screeching, pantomime-style cameos.
There is no energy of any kind in the film. It drags interminably, and neither the jaunty music nor the occasional burst of frantic burlesque can save it.
As is often the case in Bennett's work, there is an awkward attempt to simultaneously exploit misogynistic or racist humour and to criticise it – as in the uncomfortable role given to Sue's Asian wife, Moon Choo (Karen Pang).
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© Adrian Martin October 2002