JEANIE DWIGHT (Brenda Blethyn) works as a short-order cook in a Sydney cafeteria, but she used to be a comedy star and wishes she still was. Everything that's funny and sad about "Introducing the Dwights," an appealing Australian comedy tinged with melancholy, springs from this simple fact. Jeanie may be a working-class single mother in her 50s, but her gargantuan need for attention gives her a mythical dimension. She's like Echidna, the mother of all monsters -- half nymph, half snake. (Emotionally speaking, of course.)
Jeanie lives in a modest house in a working-class neighborhood of Sydney with her two sons, Mark (Richard Wilson), who suffers from a mental disability but knows his way around a bon mot, and Tim (Khan Chittenden), an exceptionally handsome but painfully introverted 20-year-old virgin. Jeanie is intent on reclaiming her former glory, now 25 years gone and all but forgotten, and Tim serves as her chauffeur, moral support and official joke tester while making payments on a moving truck to set himself up in business.
When Tim meets a beautiful girl named Jill (Emma Booth) during a moving job and falls in love, Jeanie feels so threatened by the relationship that it takes her to the edge of a nervous breakdown. On her way there, she refuses to remember Jill's name, guilt-trips Tim mercilessly over an uneaten ratatouille the first time he spends the night at Jill's house and bullies him into getting on stage with her during a benefit performance so that she can humiliate him in front of his girlfriend.
Lest this description make the film sound "Mommie Dearest" Down Under, however, Jeanie's narcissism has a flip side -- she's funny, lively and fiercely devoted to her sons. Blethyn glides between moments of fun and warm conviviality to Jeanie's more exotic emotional states as effortlessly as if she were mixing a cocktail. Screenwriter Keith Thompson based the story on his experiences growing up as the child of entertainers, and his script conjures the experience with tenderness, humor and compassion.
For a quirky Australian indie comedy, the quirk in "Introducing the Dwights" is kept refreshingly in check. These are fully realized characters, not caricatures. This goes even for Tim and Mark's father, John (Frankie J. Holden), a one-hit wonder country musician in Johnny Cash drag who works as a security guard but is trying to make a comeback. Director Cherie Nowlan likes her characters, and she gets them -- which is no small thing considering what she's dealing with.
Wilson is very good as Mark, if (through no fault of his own) a little confusing. For a kid who was deprived oxygen to the brain, he's wittier than Noel Coward on his third martini. In fact, until the condition is explained, you assume something like high-functioning autism, or cerebral palsy. More believable is Nowlan's portrait of Tim and Jill's barely post-teenage love, which is treated so naturalistically it takes you back. Jill is a font of sudden freak-outs, rages and tears; Tim is a bewildered mute incapable of providing even the simplest explanations that would definitely allay the sudden freak-outs, rages and tears -- and still the whole thing manages to look incredibly appealing and giddy.
The stakes are purely emotional, and yet they feel very high.
But the movie belongs to Blethyn, who takes a difficult, easily misunderstood role and gracefully cracks it open to reveal what's inside. The single false note in "Introducing the Dwights" comes at the very end, during an all-is-well epilogue that feels tacked-on and possibly mandated. But considering what Jeanie's been through, you don't begrudge her her moment of happiness.
"Introducing the Dwights." MPAA rating: R for sexual content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; and the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8233.