Too infrequently a small movie arrives from left field, taking its audience by surprise, riding on a word-of-mouth high--a "Choose Me," "Arthur," "Stand By Me" kind of discovery.
Now from Australia we have just such a delight--"Malcolm" (Cineplex, Beverly Center; Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas), a dazzlingly inventive, tender, utterly unpretentious comedy. If you can't remember the last time you laughed out loud at a movie; if the great Ealing comedies of character are still your standard of excellence, then "Malcolm" is your cuppa, mate.
"Malcolm" has hardly gone unheralded on its home ground. Over the weekend, it became Australia's Cinderella story. A family affair and a first feature for its director and writer, made for the equivalent of $650,000, it won eight Australian Film Institute Awards (their Oscars): best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and actress, editing, screenplay and sound. The win for director Nadia Tass marks the first time a woman has gotten that honor in Australia; her husband, David Parker, was "Malcolm's" writer, co-producer and cinematographer. And the character of Malcolm was loosely based on John Tassopoulos, the director's younger brother, who died in 1983 at the age of 25.
In a way, a passel of awards almost creates problems for a movie this modest. "Malcolm" isn't "Dr. Zhivago." Or "Lawrence of Arabia." It's small, deadpan witty, almost a visualization of its music by the splendidly irreverent Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Mostly it sneaks up on you. Like Malcolm (played by the thatch-haired, piercingly blue-eyed and splendid Colin Friels).
His thumb held protectively inside his fist, Malcolm walks leaning ever so slightly into an imaginary wind and crosses the street rather than pass in front of a small dog or children at play. He is, at the same time, a mechanical genius and what the world thinks of as "slow." Living alone since his mother's recent death, Malcolm has held a job, working around his beloved railway trams, until a too-clever invention of his gets him sacked.
At this point, it's the consensus of the neighbors and shopkeepers in his little Melbourne community that Malcolm should get a boarder. Enter Frank (John Hargreaves), an ex-con, and, in very short order, Frank's lady love, Judith (Lindy Davies) a cheerful, handsome woman d'un certain mileage.
The two settle into Malcolm's Victorian gingerbread bungalow, with its comforting, dark interior. (This is one of the few comedies to be celebrated in rich, dark tones.) The house is crammed with Malcolm's ingenious inventions: toy trams, a little motor-driven pickup truck he sends halfway up the street for his morning milk, even a thingamabob that exercises his cockatoo.
His new "friends" are racy and disreputable, and layabout Frank is clearly up to no good, but they please Malcolm down to his socks. They also bring him out into the world, even if it's a world of hot TV sets and elaborately planned heists.
Fascinated by what he's seen (and overheard), Malcolm throws himself into a frenzy of creation. In his garage workshop, he begins building devices that--it seems to him--have been needed for the stickups and getaways he's watched on television, and if you think I'm going to describe a single one, you're badly mistaken. The Bond gadgeteers had better pack it all in and hire Malcolm. His brainchildren have the pure joy of an animated cartoon (and the gurgle and musical rhythm of one too, thanks to the Penguin Cafe score).
The film makers build this unlikely trio with economy and outrageous, silent-movie sight gags. But something deeper has been building as well. From the beginning, as we watch an idea make its uncertain way behind Frank's eyes and out his mouth, it's clear that this lodger, who can think of Malcolm as a "moron," is a pretty dim bulb himself. He's simply functional in the outside world--and only there on its fringes.
Malcolm's sterling qualities are not lost on Judith, however. Nor on us, from the unveiling of his very first invention. (Judith is also the movie's voice of moral outrage at a babe like Malcolm being pulled into some very dark woods.) What remains is for Frank to move, with the greatest reluctance, over to our side, a journey that is fully half the film's fun.
Hargreaves, Davies and Friel are simply marvelous. It's hard to recognize the anguished, golden-bearded intellectual of "My First Wife" in Hargreave's Frank, the chain-smoking tough with the short fuse. Davies' Jude is a marvelous creation: casually sensual, generous, motherly; most herself around men but the sort of woman who genuinely likes other women as well.