It's widely believed that narrative film depends on conflict. But does it have to be that way? After all, conflict sucks. It takes years off your life in the form of stress and aggravation. It sends young people to war and well-meaning couples to divorce court. And it eats up valuable hours that could be better spent sleeping, eating or watching Dr. Phil. Maybe now is the time to question why our movies have to keep paying obeisance to an evil master like conflict, instead of preaching the virtues of making nice for a change.
Danny Deckchair gets about halfway to that paradigm shift. An Aussie comedy with a mile-wide agreeable streak, the film appears to pride itself on its low-impact, high-hugs approach to blue-collar fantasy. In a nutshell, it's the story of what happens when Sydney laborer Danny Morgan (Rhys Ifans) finds his plans for a camping vacation scuttled by the self-serving fibbing of his career-obsessed girlfriend (Justine Clark). Relegated to his backyard instead of the great outdoors, Danny impulsively festoons his folding chair with helium balloons, and whoosh! He's carried high into the sky, embarking on a cloud-scraping journey of many miles and eventually touching down in an idyllic community that welcomes him as an exotic and inspirational figure everything he isn't at home.
His flight of fancy marks an abrupt change of tone for the film, which has previously charted a course of mundane grubbiness. As soon as Danny is in the air, though, his movie becomes a sort of children's book for adults the tale of an underestimated nobody who achieves renown by doing something miraculous that anyone else could have accomplished had only they thought of it. In a children's book, this metamorphosis would be immediately followed by the words "The End"; Danny Deckchair arrives at it early, leaving us to immerse ourselves in how wonderful Danny's new life is in his discovered rural paradise. He even finds himself a new, infinitely more honorable lady friend (Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings' Eowyn).
In this magnificent environment, quarrels are minor and dealt with swiftly, amiable grins returning to faces that should be permanently creased from sustaining the things morning, noon and night. Few actresses wear a smile better than Otto, who may be even more effective in the role of a pure-hearted Ms. Right than Natasha McElhone was in The Truman Show. And Ifans is always up for the face-acting challenges of romantic comedy. Whatever difficulties their characters encounter prove to be mere speed bumps along a path of prolonged bliss.
For a long while, the effect is confusing but pleasant, suggesting that writer/director Jeff Balsmeyer is mounting that rejection of conflict-based principles I mentioned earlier. But it eventually becomes apparent that he's merely a messy storyteller: Though Otto's Glenda preserves Danny's privacy by introducing him around town as an old college professor, it's unclear how long they fall for this ruse, and to what extent they instead associate him with the stories of a vanished cement worker they hear about in frantic TV broadcasts from Sydney. Even the periodic check-ins with Danny's old acquaintances fail to establish the import of the looming showdown between his former and current realities.
When that reckoning comes, it's almost too little too late. And given everything that's preceded it, it feels like a cop-out lip service to the idea that a moviegoing audience needs dramatic friction after all. If that assumption isn't going to be advanced properly, I'd rather see it challenged outright. But it's nothing I want to fight about.
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