THAT'S NOT MY DOG!★
(CTC) 88 minutes
A friend who spent a lot of time in the bush once told me what I regard as the quintessential Australian joke.
Two old codgers are sitting on a bench watching the town go by when they spy the most unpopular man they know. As he passes, one dolefully remarks that when he was a kid, they had to tie a chop around his neck to get the dogs to play with him.
This has both the national comic essentials – a deadpan delight in the worst that life has to offer, coupled with a finely honed gift for pushing exaggeration into absurdity.
There are plenty of humorists aspiring to this standard in That's Not My Dog!, a foolhardy venture totally devoted to the art of the joke. Shane Jacobson has invited a large group of those he regards as his funniest friends to a night-time barbecue. The result is a roll call of performers familiar from TV sketch comedies and sitcoms, old and current. Rugged up in scarves, hoodies and anoraks, they huddle around the fire, listening to the bands whose music provides punctuation between the punchlines and striving to warm up the wintry air with gales of laughter in the hope that we, the audience, will be moved to join in.
The guest of honour is Jacobson's father, Ron, who his son is saluting because he's so frequently brightened his own life with laughter.
On the plus side, Jacobson has done a lot to earn our affection, starting with his initial success, Kenny. In 2006, the gross-out movie was enjoying its heyday – something that didn't incline me towards the prospect of a mockumentary about an expert in the maintenance and delivery of portaloos. But Jacobson proved an unlikely winner, stripping the nudge, nudge, wink factor out of the film's battery of toilet jokes and giving us a character endearingly imbued with professional pride.
He saw his puns as just being part of the service – fond tributes to an unfairly derided occupation. Sure, it was a smelly way to earn a living but so what? The shock factor lasted no more than a few seconds. After that, you got used to it. However, his ex-wife and cantankerous old dad were full of contempt, so there was some pathos along with the laughter – a combination that launched Jacobson on a highly successful career as a screen actor. The film was the year's top-grossing Australian movie and it won a swag of awards.
With this one, however, he's really stretching the relationship. The whole concept is so flawed that it's hard to see how the film got made. It raises expectations that can't possibly be fulfilled. Humour relies on the element of surprise and this film is so adamant in promising to be hilarious that my main impulse was to resist. The camera also has the unfunny habit of hitting you with product placements in conspicuous close-up for the wine, popcorn and crisps being consumed by the partygoers.
Paul Hogan does best with the surprise bit, embarking on a shaggy dog story then abruptly veering off to cut to the chase with a one-line finish. Think of the celebrated movie moment when Indiana Jones disarms a sabre-twirling giant with a single pistol shot. The technique is similar but the pay off, sadly, falls a long way short of that cathartic thud as the giant hits the ground.
Otherwise, there's plenty here to offend. Animal lovers will blanch at the one about the man arrested for barbecuing a penguin. When asked how it tasted, he answers, "halfway between a dolphin and a koala". And the film's gross-out factor is certainly robust enough to outrage the #MeToo movement.
But is it funny? Looking at the laughing faces on screen, you might imagine so. Then you remind yourself that many of them are basking in the afterglow of their own jokes. I'd say that you had to be there, except that the guest-of-honour looks bemused rather than amused as he picks up his blanket and heads home for an early night.
Sandra Hall is the author of two novels (A Thousand Small Wishes and Beyond the Break), two histories of the Australian television industry (Supertoy and Turning On, Turning Off) and Tabloid Man, a biography of Ezra Norton, the man who established Truth and The Daily Mirror. She was film critic at The Bulletin magazine prior to joining The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996.
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