I have two admissions to make: I have been in love with Greta Scacchi since I can remember and I have an aversion to reunion themed films. But with a bit of luck, those two conflicting factors should keep my unfurling thoughts on Palm Beach on track to a constructive outcome…
Palm Beach tells the story of life-long friends who reunite for the birthday of Frank (Bryan Brown), a retired music executive who managed a one-hit-wonder band in the ‘80s. The band was called The Pacific Sideburns and it brought him immeasurable wealth. The band’s founding members, Leo (Sam Neill) and Billy (Richard E. Grant), return with their families to reminisce and wax lyrical over the course of three days, and as their weekend unfolds past issues are raised, tensions mount and the group finds itself at the mercy of an incredibly contrived and shamelessly predictable story.
The genre is tried and true and the inevitable comparison to Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) will likely feature in many a review of the film to come. It created a benchmark that has been replicated time and time again, with few ever surpassing it. With that in mind, there is an immediate understanding of what to expect and while it does fall victim to the trappings of its clichés, one’s focus can be redirected to the performances at hand.
Bryan Brown is the natural choice to lead, with director/co-writer Rachel Ward, Brown’s real-life wife, delivering her first theatrical film since 2009’s Beautiful Kate. Their marital status has given strength to their onscreen dynamics. Brown shepherds the story with authority and serves as the tentpole the ensemble relies on for stability. He is excellent as the temperamental old bloke whose life, despite his successes and wealth, hasn’t turned out the way he had imagined. His ever-loving wife Charlotte (played by Greta Scacchi) finds herself in a predicament when past secrets threaten to tear the group apart.
Scacchi is wonderful and gives a well-rounded – and emotionally sinuous – performance that keeps the proceedings from spilling over into kitschy territory. The rest of the cast includes Heather Mitchell as Eva, an ageing Hollywood actress and partner to Billy; Jacqueline McKenzie as Leo’s wife Bridget; Claire van der Boom as Holly, the musician daughter of the band’s diseased singer; Aaron Jeffrey as Holly’s boyfriend; and Charlie Vickers and Matilda Brown (real-life daughter of Bryan and Rachel) as the adult children of the weekend’s hosts.
The rapport amongst the entire cast is natural and their synchronicity implies an attentive and thorough process of rehearsal and workshopping. Being their sixth collaboration (as far as I know), Palm Beach benefits from Neill and Brown’s off-camera friendship and long working relationship. In fact, the overall dynamic amongst all characters is as equally believable. The film marks Richard E. Grant’s third Australian outing following the unfortunate Kath & Kimderella and the obscure children’s film Hildegarde, and allows him to make a proverbial peace offering for those past misgivings. He is a welcome addition to the Aussie mob and provides some of the film’s lighter moments.
Perhaps the biggest weakness to the film, aside from obeying every rule of the genre, is its lack of relatability. Far be it for me to ride the train of political correctness, but by having all of the characters as wealthy and white Ward has missed valuable opportunities for the audience to connect on a deeper emotional level. Hear me out. Had Frank flown his guests at a great financial burden to himself, or had their personal dilemmas been grounded outside of privilege, the audience would have had cause to rally behind them. If Holly’s boyfriend had been, say, of a different culture, or if any one of them had been carrying strong emotional from outside the group’s obvious class comforts, perhaps we would have a more layered and diverse situation to contend with. Instead, we have a few laughs and enjoy some of the social aspects of their reunion, but ultimately feel little to no sympathy for the things that should matter most.
(Coincidentally this is Brown’s second trip to Palm Beach, having starred in a 1980 film of the same name. And given that Ward co-wrote and directed this film, it’s curious that she didn’t choose a title relating to a different affluent area of Australia.)
Palm Beach (aka The Big Chill Redux) is a somewhat enjoyable but quickly forgettable exercise in mediocrity. Were it not for an impressive cast of players and some beautiful Northern Sydney landscapes to look at, it would (and may still) sink into obscurity before we know it. As a champion of Australian cinema I can think of far more exciting and worthy projects for the funding bodies to have invested in and I wish that Rachel Ward had challenged herself with the level of diversity and integrity that we have come to love her for.
For the record, I am still in love with Greta Scacchi… but not enough to thwart my disdain for this brand of cinema.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘Palm Beach’ hits Aussie cinemas on August 8.