Dir: Bill Bennett. Australia. 2002. 97mins.

Although he is strictly one part of a sparky acting ensemble, Eric Bana shoulders the above-the-title promotional weight for The Nugget, a pleasantly folksy Australian comedy. After his huge arthouse success as Chopper, his macho lead in Black Hawk Down - and before his coming worldwide multiplex outings as The Hulk and opposite Brad Pitt in Troy -Bana is here having selfless, underplayed fun with a team of mainly stand-up-comedians-turned-actors. Australian audiences will doubtless plug into the essentially local, unsophisticated, easygoing humour. Internationally, promotional reliance on Bana could attract attention, especially after Hulk's release, although it is likely to be disappointed by the star's deliberate ordinariness amid an unknown team.

Bana plays chronically unlucky Lotto, one of the three-man self-named Black Tar Gang repairing bushland roads round sleepy Mudgee, New South Wales. Equally laconic and imperturbable are his mates: gullible Wookie (Curry) who firmly believes in alien interventions, and overweight oddly-named Sue (O'Neill), perhaps the laziest council worker in Australia. What unites them is their deadpan humour, their love of cold beer and their regular weekend prospecting on nearby goldfields, played-out since the 1860s.

Fate intervenes when Wookie relieves himself on a giant nugget the size of a boulder. Dimly aware that this is "our chance to set ourselves up for good", the trio transport their huge find back to Mudgee and bury it under a backyard birdbath, vowing to keep the secret even from their immediately suspicious wives. But the gormless heroes can not stop themselves spending on the anticipation of vast future riches: facials for their wives and monster flat-screen televisions. Local sharks and villains circle the increasingly desperate gang who come to realise that their fabulous bonanza, confirmed by a well-thumbed Guinness Book of Records as the largest nugget ever, has been a mixed blessing.

This gently moralistic fable is narrated by a tramp-like oldtimer (the excellent Cullen) who lives in a shack on a fairy-tale hill with a magical white cockatoo that swoops through some brilliantly sweeping landscapes by cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann, accompanied by Ian Westlake's lush symphonic score.

Bennett is one of Australia's most versatile and prolific director/writers, with recent credits that include the semi-improvised road movie Kiss Or Kill (1997), the big budget period drama In A Savage Land (1998), and the upcoming New Orleans based Tempted with Burt Reynolds. Here, he has clearly enjoyed working with Bana and his large cast of country oddballs, but his directorial hand is surer than his underpowered screenplay, which could have done with a less variable quality of jokes and at least one character with a smidgen of brainpower. For, while they never lose audience affection, Lotto and his affable mates have such limited ambitions and prove such easy targets that it is easy to lose sympathy with their gullibility and their recurring solution to all known problems of reaching for the nearest beer.

Prod co: b:j films
Aust dist:
Village Roadshow
Int'l sales:
Overseas Film Group, TF1 Int'l
Bennett, Jennifer Cluff
Danny Ruhlmann
Prod des:
Nicholas McCallum
Henry Dangar
Music: Nigel Westlake
Main cast:
Eric Bana, Stephen Curry, Dave O'Neill, Belinda Emmett, Max Cullen