Writer-director David Caesar's third feature, his first since the admired Idiot Box (1996), is a small-budget, small-scale character study surprisingly showing in widescreen 35mm and six-track Dolby.

Though rich in Australian idiom and seldom exploited southern New South Wales coastal scenery, Mullet's theatrical ambitions seem overstretched. Its true home is more likely to be television.

"All my films," notes Caesar, "are trying to understand what it means to be a 'bloke' in today's society." Leading bloke here is scruffy, aimless Eddie (Mendelsohn) - known as Mullet, after the local mud-sucking river fish - who returns to his home townlet after a three-year unannounced disappearance.

He seems less interested in trying to understand himself than are the friends and family he left behind, including jilted girlfriend Tully (Porter), who has married Mullet's milder-mannered policeman brother Pete (Gilbert). A showdown threatens, if Mullet can rouse himself into action.

There is acute comic accuracy and buried pain in the banter between Mullet and his mates - in the local pub, on the floodlit training ground where his stubborn father coaches the Coollawarra Crows, and at the doomed backyard barbecue planned by Pete to bring the family together.

Mendelsohn gets Mullet's unfocused, non-communicative character exactly right, as a scruffy no-hoper with a hairstyle "like a rat looking through a straw broom". But he cannot make us like him nor care for the outcome of his disruptive presence, a serious problem for the movie's prospects at home (where it opens in May) and abroad.

He reveals little about why he left, where he has been, why he has returned or what he wants to do next. Even Caesar eventually switches focus from the stunned Mullet to the struggling, touching relationship between Tully and Pete, although it comes too late to salvage the film.

Prod co: Porchlight Films. Int'l sales: Axiom Films. Prod: Vincent Sheehan. Scr: David Caesar. Cinematographer: Robert Humphreys. Prod des: Elizabeth Moore. Ed: Mark Perry. Music: Paul Healy. Main cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Susie Porter, Andrew S Gilbert