Dir: Darren Ashton. Australia 95 mins
Following two children's dance troupes as they compete for top prize in a prestigious national tournament, Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance is an intermittently amusing backstage comedy that skewers the rampaging egos and vaulting ambition of its ragbag of aspiring show-biz types. Filmed in a mockumentary style, Darren Ashton's second movie boasts some fine comic performances but it's pitched awkwardly between the deadpan humour of Christopher Guest's work and the more flamboyant camp of Strictly Ballroom.
A low-budget Australian comedy that trades on character-based humour and a sly sense of irony rather than star performances and gross-out gags, Razzle Dazzle has muted appeal. The modest returns of its Australian release in March this year, where it grossed $1.4m (and was tellingly outperformed by the John Travolta comedy Wild Hogs and the British action thriller parody Hot Fuzz) are unlikely to be exceeded elsewhere, especially given that overseas audiences will miss the local references. The film's unambitious visual style and low-key humour are likely to play better on television, suggesting TV and DVD sales will be steady.
Ashton might acknowledge the influence of Christopher Guest's comedies, but his film will do well to match the US film-maker's returns, lacking either Guest's accomplished sophistication or his brand recognition (A Mighty Wind, 2003, W'wide: $18.7m; For Your Consideration, 2006, US: $5.5m). The film grossed $1.4m at theAustralian box office,passing the$7m taken by2006's Kenny, another low-budget mockumentary slow-burner, although Razzle Dazzle arguably lacks enough of the latter film's warm charm to make an impact on overseas sales.
Introducing us to the main protagonists, Razzle Dazzle's set-up is a typical mockumentary blend of talking-heads interviews and verite-style footage. Personality quirks are quickly established. Head of the Jazzketeers class, Mr Jonathon (played with agreeable understatement by Ben Miller) injects awareness-raising politics to the routines he teaches his pupils: the 'Kyoto Protocol Shuffle' being a typically droll example. Running the rival troupe, Miss Elizabeth is a fearsome martinet who drills into her pupils old-fashioned dance techniques and an unhealthy attitude towards diet designed to keep her charges stick thin.
Charting Mr Jonathan and Miss Elizabeth's preparations for the Sanosafe Troupe Spectacular, the film portrays some of the young dancers, focussing on pre-teen Tenille and her ambitious mother Justine. Played by Kerry Armstrong, Justine is the film's strongest feature: a pushy, utterly shameless stage mom that keeps just short of caricature thanks to Armstrong's poignant suggestion of Justine's own frustrated desires to perform.
Indeed the performances throughout are nicely judged; the young cast acquit themselves well, bringing a subtle sense of naturalism to the comic scenes and dancing up a treat to choreographer John O'Connell's routines (the film's fun dance numbers gift the movie some of the glitter-ball glamour that made the Strictly Ballroom, another Oz film set in the world of dance, such a success).
The film's cast, however, are often left down by the variable quality of Ince and Wilson's script: Mr Jonathan's fondness, for instance, for mixing politics and interpretative dance is a gag that's allowed to run on too long. The backstage intrigue is underdeveloped too: Mr Jonathan's romance with the mother of one of his pupils - the amusingly self-assured Grace - is cursory, while Miss Elizabeth remains a one-note caricature, barely defined beyond her harsh approach to teaching and tunnel-vision ambition to win the tournament.
More importantly many of the comic set-ups here stretch credibility, a serious flaw in a film whose mockumentary style is predicated on its careful sense of realism. When one character, for instance, slips in vomit that a dancer earlier threw up on stage it provokes a belly laugh; but the gag breaks the naturalistic tone that Ashton has strained for elsewhere. Increasingly the film opts for such easy laughs over more resonant observational humour. The climactic competition disappoints too, Ashton's handheld, artfully messy camera struggling to capture O'Connell's gleefully silly routines to best effect. What could have been an audience-pleasing showstopper is instead fizzles out.
Film Finance Corporationi Australia (Aus)
New South Wales Film & Television Office (Aus)
Wild Eddie (Aus)
Celluloid Dreams (Fr)
(33) 1 49 70 03 70
Australia/New Zealand Distributors
Julie-Anne de Ruvo