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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 25%
Average: 3.57%
Pretty Bad: 21.43%
Total Crap: 7.14%

1 review, 22 user ratings

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He Died with a Felafel in His Hand
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by Andrew Howe

"Lowenstein makes his bed, but we have to lie in it."
2 stars

Having once spent the better part of a decade living in share accommodation, I can vouch for the accuracy of John Birmingham’s depiction of modern-day communal living in his 1994 opus He Died With A Felafel In His Hand. It’s a wry and knowing work, packed to the gills with unusual characters, good advice (“Never move into a house with someone who plays The Smiths all the time”) and situations which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever packed up their troubles in their old kit bag and unleashed them on the denizens of whichever low-rent retreat they chose to call home.

However, even Birmingham’s most devoted followers will admit that it doesn’t lend itself to adaptation. It lacks a strong narrative spine (you could read the chapters in any order without losing anything), supporting characters come and go, and a third of the book is devoted to tangential interviews and sundry digressions.

None of which deterred writer/director Richard Lowenstein from giving it his best shot, and the book’s unexpected success in Italy provided a convenient source of financing. Lowenstein isn’t exactly a household name – his main claim to fame (apart from helming a few INXS video clips) is Dogs in Space (1986), a mildly diverting Australian film about a drug-soaked share house which attained low-level cult status through the presence of the late, great Michael Hutchence in a lead role.

Lowenstein’s solution to the seemingly insurmountable problems in adapting the source material was to invent a new central character, Danny (Noah Taylor), pare the supporting cast down to a core of five, and drop selected episodes from the book into a tale of his own devising. However, it’s obvious that he would have preferred to ditch Birmingham’s musings entirely, since he’s more concerned with turning the spotlight on lives in varying states of disrepair than with recreating Birmingham’s comic sensibility.

The book was, to be brutally honest, a rather lowbrow affair. It worked on the printed page, because Birmingham created a rollicking, light-hearted atmosphere which allowed the reader to forgive him his occasional lapses into toilet humour (flatmates urinating in fridges, nailing their pubic hair to boards, and many others). Lowenstein jettisons the worst of it, but what’s left simply doesn’t work on the screen. Stripped of the gloss our imagination attaches to Birmingham’s prose, most of the set-pieces and asides are hard-pressed to raise a smile, and since Lowenstein obviously included the humour under duress his sense of comic timing is understandably muted.

If Lowenstein had been content to leave well enough alone he might have produced an intermittently amusing comedy, but his misplaced faith in his own scriptwriting abilities results in an overblown, sprawling mess. One minute you’ll be enduring a long and profoundly stupid sequence involving pagan worship, human sacrifice and latent lesbianism; the next you’ll be confronted by a dark, meandering meditation upon wasted lives and unfulfilling relationships. Lest I make it sound intriguing, rest assured that the former will have you cringing in disbelief, while the latter will make you wish that Lowenstein had seen fit to invest his characters with considerably more depth.

Noah Taylor’s emaciated features provide him with a certain ragged charm, but Danny is not a particularly likeable character, and spends most of his time allowing others to dictate the outcome of his daily existence. His favourite activity appears to be smoking cigarettes while staring pensively into the distance, except when he’s too busy whining about his lot in life or shoring up the wall between his inner self and everyone he comes into contact with. When he finally snaps and shows a little gumption it’s too little too late, for by then your interest in his fate has well and truly dissipated.

Then again, if you were surrounded by the motley bunch of losers he calls flatmates you’d be short on compassion too. Anya (Romane Bohringer) is a nasty piece of work who specialises in playing with other people’s emotions; Taylor (Alex Menglet) is a nutcase who thinks nothing of racking up massive bills on other people’s credit cards; Flip (Brett Stewart) is a junkie with both feet in the grave; and Nina (Sophie Lee, who is proving to be quite a find after her tenure as the bimbo host of The Bugs Bunny Show) is an out-and-out bitch who might have evoked some measure of pathos if she’d been allowed to drop her guard for more than a couple of seconds. The characters standing on the outside looking in aren’t much better, with special mention going to the local authorities, who make the officers who used Rodney King as a punching bag look like paragons of virtue.

Thankfully, the procession of lowlives is arrested by Emily Hamilton, who turns in a charming performance as Sam, a British student whose good heart is tainted by bad company. She’s the only character in the film who elicits the slightest measure of viewer support, and the fact that Lowenstein can’t resist the urge to script an unnecessary fall from grace encapsulates everything that is wrong with the film’s tone.

A successful film doesn’t necessarily require likeable characters, but if you’re going to concentrate on human flotsam you need to deal in powerful emotions or thrust the protagonists into situations which promote viewer identification. Lowenstein, however, seems to be under the impression that scripting pointless, meandering conversations and passing it off as hard-edged character development is enough to shake us from our complacency, and unless you’re addicted to drugs, prostitutes or nihilism you’ll find precious little to identify with (I’m assuming, of course, that you’ve never tried to pass off a linen closet as a spare room or known someone who died with a felafel in their hand).

The film certainly has its moments (a funeral sequence is surprisingly touching, and Lee’s outbursts will have anyone who has ever suffered under a shrew smiling in recognition), but Lowenstein’s inability to reconcile the film he wanted to make with the film he had to make leaves us with an effort which, like Danny’s choice of accommodation, is singularly uninviting.

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originally posted: 09/05/01 16:17:14
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User Comments

11/26/06 Kelv I can't agree with the review, but then I have lived like that. 5 stars
6/17/06 Dyl Didn't know what to expect. Loved the humour, but also the more delicate moments. 5 stars
5/23/06 Nikki i fucking love this movie it gets u thinking 5 stars
1/14/05 Tobin Bro A great book ruined by the twat who made 'Dogs in Space'. 1 stars
1/04/05 magaafi one of the few australian films worth seeing. gr8. spida b8 made a song bout this-fken awes 5 stars
7/27/04 Ryan King I have seen it 100's of times its me fave movie 5 stars
10/01/03 sander Great movie. I went to see it twice at a film festival in Brussels. 5 stars
8/29/03 Dominic This film is one of my favourites, and its Australian too! 5 stars
7/11/03 Aidan Campbell Watched it while stoned and seemed to connect with me. 4 stars
7/10/03 Spencer Sometimes the "in-jokes" about Australia lighten the mood enough to make the film a hit 4 stars
6/18/03 Bjorn Bloody excellent 5 stars
12/15/01 Dan Great soundtrack 4 stars
10/16/01 hooty mcboobs its shit 1 stars
9/23/01 Matt Davis Extremely funny & thought provoking. 4 stars
9/19/01 kez wilco very funny, great soundtrack. 5 stars
9/11/01 bornslippy funny film with moments of brilliant comic timing 4 stars
9/10/01 anna i loved the music, and i thought it was hilarious 5 stars
9/10/01 Karen funny, funny, funny 5 stars
9/07/01 Matt Really really good. The whole cinema was pretty much laughing all the way through. 4 stars
8/26/01 Belinda Great film...excellent soundtrack. 4 stars
7/11/01 Angela Connell Nowhere near as funny as the book.. it's been turned into a drama. Still work a look. 3 stars
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