The new film from Paul Murphy, director of Second-Hand Wedding, is an offensively moronic romantic comedy starring Rhys Darby, Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), and a duck named Pierre. As evidenced by the antiquated “But he’s about to find out…” voiceover in its Rob Schneider-esque trailer, the film is as formulaic and predictable as they come. Its sole point of difference—the city in which its action takes place, Auckland—is not capitalised upon outside of a small handful establishing shots.
After he and his girlfriend (Faye Smythe, TV’s Shortland Street) break up, roadwork foreman Doug (Darby) wakes up to find an injured duck in his guttering. He takes it to a local ornithologist who explains that he needs to take it to a specialist—so Doug takes it to the zoo, where Holly (Hawkins) works in the aviary. She’s initially reluctant to help Doug and his duck, but, when egged on by her co-worker (Emily Barclay, In My Father’s Den), she gives in. They go on a few dates, and, amid the expected goofy hijinks and barely-prodded subplots about her late husband and young son, they fall in (and, briefly, out of) love.
The film’s soundtrack consists almost entirely of songs by Queen, representing a lost chance to highlight local culture through music. I lost count of the number of gratuitous montages (the film has at least four) between the opening credits and the nauseating whole-cast karaoke sing-along (to, yes, another Queen song) over the closing titles.
The screenplay, by Nick Ward—who wrote Stickmen and a couple of episodes of Outrageous Fortune, as well as the idea and the first draft of director Murphy’s previous film—lacks wit, imagination, nuance, subtlety and, perhaps most glaringly, any semblance of romance or genuine comedy. This is sub-Shortland Street stuff: much of the dialogue could have been penned by your average fourth form English class. The direction is similarly lacklustre: Darby has stated in interviews that there were a few moments of improvisation, but—judging by the stock responses he seemingly memorised to dutifully dole out to daytime talk-show hosts and light-entertainment reporters when they inevitably asked “What was it like working with a duck?” and “This character’s a bit different from what you usually play, isn’t it?”—it doesn’t sound like he had much fun on the set, or that he interacted much with (or was given much support by) the director or writer.
Because the script doesn’t play to his strengths as a comic, Darby is left floundering, try as he may to improve his tawdry, underwritten character as it appears on the page. Aside from Murray the Manager on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, the role for which he’s best known, Darby has slowly built a strong Stateside following through films like Yes Man and Pirate Radio (né The Boat that Rocked). His new film, if it makes it to the US, will undo all of that—not through any fault of his own, necessarily, but largely because it is borderline unwatchable in and of itself. His quirky ‘over-enunciation’ schtick enjoys only a few brief outings here, but because there’s only a modicum of chemistry between Darby and Hawkins—and because the comedy stylings of everyone else around him, including Dave Fane, are basically diametrically opposed to his—his fellow actors are unable to respond in the way a character on FotC might, and the film falls flat on its face.
Save a few utterances of the word “shit,” this is a family movie—not least because its central character is a duck. If it had aired on TV over Christmas, it wouldn’t have been seen by as wide an audience as it’s now being marketed to, and would be easier to let slip under the radar as ‘just another little Kiwi film’; a failed but valiant effort at making a local rom-com. (The relatively amateur quality of its construction and formal characteristics—editing, blocking, lighting—would have been less obvious on a smaller screen, too.) As it is, angling now for overseas distribution and being (stupidly) pitched as “something different from the usual rom-com,” the film will not only decimate whatever chances Darby might have had at getting work on halfway-prestigious overseas films or TV series, but will be yet another black mark on the New Zealand film industry and our inability to fund or produce innovative films that tell exciting, fresh stories from a uniquely Kiwi perspective.
There was a way to do this right: by highlighting the film’s locale in the writing, not just in a couple of sunrise and establishing shots; by tapping into the local (non-dub) music scene and not selecting ‘safe,’ easy—and thus hideously boring—musical accompaniment; by not having Doug and his co-workers (a predictable melting pot of ethnicities) play cricket on the grass verge in the middle of a busy motorway to pass time; by recognising the comic and acting talent in the cast, and, perhaps, by choosing a director who could invest time and effort in working with his cast rather than (seemingly) around them. Taika Waititi’s Boy aside, we seem to peddle the same banal, embarrassing stinkers time after time. Love Birds stands as one of our national cinema’s many sad examples of tired, complacent mediocrity triumphing over vital, original content.
Love Birds is in cinemas today.