"Six Feet Under" watchers put off by Rachel Griffiths' underuse last season will find minimal consolation in "The Hard Word," a mock-sordid Aussie caper that employs the moonlighting Brenda Chenowith to similarly disappointing effect. One difference: Griffiths gets a good chunk of screen time in her role as Carol, a two-timing wife who bounces pinball-like between her convict husband (Guy Pearce) and his sleazy lawyer (Robert Taylor). But while she makes what she can of the part, it's clear that she's on hand mostly to play the two-dimensional femme fatale. Somebody had the bright idea to deck her out in big blond tresses, extreme makeup and a series of ironically white outfits, perhaps in homage to the Basinger/Sharon Stone school of atmospheric vixenhood. The cumulative effect, though, is alarmingly over the top. The deeper the movie forces her to dip into the lamé drawer, the more we feel as if we're watching an Emmy-winning actress screen test for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
Like Carol's wardrobe, the movie wants to be provocative but just comes off trashy. Pearce's Dale -- a bearded, jaw-jutting professional thief -- is locked up with his two brothers. Greaser boychick Shane (Joel Edgerton) has a violent streak that's keyed to some unresolved mother issues; plump culinary expert Malcolm (Damien Richardson), meanwhile, harbors a romantic soul that makes him a kind of down-under answer to Donal Logue. The three keep getting sprung from jail by their mobbed-up attorney, Frank (Taylor), to pull heists that have the hidden imprimatur of the corrupt cops. Then it's back to the hoosegow for their own "protection" -- a jack-in-the-box scam that shocks and outrages the freedom-hungry brothers every time it happens. Then again, Dale doesn't deduce that Carol is humping around on him until he sees Frank seductively lighting her cigarette in a suggestive two-shot that's straight out of a Virginia Slims ad. So maybe extended incarceration dulls a man's ability to sense subtext.
The real meat of the movie has the boys on the trail of the proverbial One Last Score. And it's a pretty good one, as such things go. I'll only say that it has something to do with a high-profile sporting event -- and that it (naturally) requires the participation of a couple of outside operatives who probably can't be trusted. One of them even has a mission-endangering handicap, an Achilles' heel that's revealed in such a clever manner that you barely stop to wonder why it hasn't already frozen his criminal career in its tracks.
But writer/director Scott Roberts doesn't stop there, taking on a typically improbable fourth act of unneeded postscript and introducing an obnoxious flirtation between Mal and a ditzy, drunken meteorologist. To quote Will Ferrell's Sean Connery, the filmmaker is apparently "not a big fan of the ladies": The smack-worthy weather girl and Griffiths' gussied-up harpy make up a full two-thirds of the movie's female population. The third element is a prison therapist who throws her professional judgment to the winds to indulge Shane's maternal fixation -- all the way down to breast-feeding him in his infirmary bed. Talk about your progressive rehabilitation.