Monday 1 April 2024

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Blu-Ray review

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was released in 1972. It was torn to shreds by Australian film critics (who wanted worthy earnest Australian films) and proceeded to make a fortune at the box office. It was the newly revived Australian film industry’s first smash hit.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was shot partly in Australia and partly in London.

Barry McKenzie (Barry Crocker) is a young Australian who has just inherited some money, but the condition is that he has to use it to travel to Britain. His aunt Mrs Edna Everage (Barry Humphries) decides to accompany him.

Bazza’s problems (he is known to his friends as Bazza) start at Heathrow. He gets ripped off by the customs inspector but worst of all his supply of Fosters Lager is confiscated. Bazza is worried he won’t be able to buy Fosters in London.

Bazza has a series of outrageous adventures. He is recruited as an advertising model. He falls in with crooked hippies who plan to launch him as an Aussie folk-singing sensation. He encounters a middle-aged Englishman (played by the great Dennis Price) who wants Bazza to cane him. He falls into the hands of a crazy psychiatrist. He looks up a childhood friend, Gaylene (Mary Anne Severne), unaware that she is now a lesbian. Gaylene’s ex-husband Dominic (Peter Bentley), a TV producer, persuades Bazza to be interviewed on television.

All these adventures seem to end with wild fist-fights, chaos and in one memorable scene with Bazza throwing up over the psychiatrist’s head. Thousands of gallons of Fosters Lager are consumed. Bazza makes desperate attempts to persuade a variety of young females to go to bed with him, with a striking lack of success.

Bazza could easily have come across as obnoxious but Barry Crocker, giving a terrific performance, avoids that pitfall. He manages to persuade us that underneath the crude exterior Bazza is really quite vulnerable. Bazza just doesn’t understand anything that is happening to him. He’s a virgin and he’s terrified of women. His uncouthness is a defence. He’s really rather scared. If the audience hated Bazza the film would not have worked at all but Crocker is able to get us on Bazza’s side.

Barry Humphries had the Edna Everage schtick ticking along nicely by this time. He plays two other roles as well, including the hapless psychiatrist.

There are some notable British comedy figures in the guest cast, including Peter Cook and Spike Milligan.

To appreciate this movie fully you have to have some historical background. The 1950s had been the era of Cultural Cringe in Australia, a period in which Australians took it for granted that everything about Australian culture was inferior to British culture. By the late 60s a reaction was happening with the rise of the “new nationalism” which aimed to establish a distinctive cultural identity in both high culture and pop culture. The resuscitation of the long-dead Australian film industry was a part of this. And The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was the movie that proved that Australian movies could be commercially viable.

It’s also necessary to place Barry Humphries in the context of what was happening in British comedy in the 60s. This was the golden age of satire and at the forefront was Peter Cook. Barry Humphries was very part of this scene. He and Peter Cook were good friends and in 1964 Cook asked Humphries to write a comic strip (which became The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie) for his satirical magazine, the legendary Private Eye. Both Peter Cook and Barry Humphries favoured a deliberately provocative style of comedy. They wanted to provoke howls of outrage, and they did.

And no-one could provoke howls of outrage more effectively than Barry Humphries. When the Barry McKenzie comic strip was published in book form it was promptly banned by the Australian Government. This of course was exactly the kind of reaction Humphries wanted.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie is very much a movie that seeks to provoke and outrage. When Australian critics savaged the movie Humphries was delighted - if so many people whom he despised hated it he figured he was on the right track.

This movie is of course dated, offensive and problematic, but only in parts. I’d estimate that only 112 of its 114 minutes are dated, offensive and problematic. Of course it was intended at the time to be offensive. Nobody used the term problematic at the time but if the term had been used then Humphries would certainly have aimed to be as problematic as possible. It should be pointed out that the movie sets out to mock and offend absolutely everybody. It’s actually very offensive in a non-offensive way. You’re not supposed to take it even a tiny bit seriously.

It’s also crude and vulgar, and deliberately so. Again Humphries is gleefully setting out to provoke and outrage.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie has a couple of flaws that are almost certainly a reflection of inexperience. Bruce Beresford had never made a feature film. Neither Beresford nor Barry Humphries (who co-wrote the script between them) had ever written a feature film. The movie is a bit too long. It’s also very episodic. On the other hand this is an adaptation of a comic strip, not a novel. Its episodic quality can be seen as both a flaw and a virtue.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie is a unique cinematic experience. I enjoyed ever moment of it. Highly recommended.

No comments: