- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

Whimsy is expected to excuse ineptitude in “The Hard Word,” an Australian movie that might be more entertaining if it were about the finalists in the Australian National Spelling Bee. Evidently, “trust” is the secret word to which writer-director Scott Roberts is alluding. Ironically, he seems to scorn it as a sound basis for understanding between filmmaker and spectator.

The more appropriate title might be “Time Lag” because Mr. Roberts emulates the crime thriller as revamped by Quentin Tarantino in the early 1990s: an arbitrary mixture of the facetious and brutish. It seems unlikely that this influence hasn’t permeated the Australian film industry, but perhaps Mr. Roberts is the harbinger of a new wave of Tarantino mimicry.

He misses an opportunity to improve on a vintage Peter Sellers comedy, “Two-Way Stretch,” in which cons were able to sneak out of confinement in order to stage an armed robbery, trusting that they would have a perfect alibi after sneaking back in. “The Hard Word” champions a trio of imprisoned brothers: Dale, Mal and Shane Twentyman, portrayed respectively by Guy Pearce, Damien Richardson and Joel Edgerton.

Their crooked lawyer, Frank Malone (Robert Taylor), has been arranging two-way stretch capers on what appears to be a systematic basis. With the collusion of crooked cops and jailers, the Twentymans are paroled briefly in order to rob vans and stuff. The repetitive nature of the scam would appear to be a tad suspicious — and perhaps better suited to farcical exploitation than the setup in “Two-Way Stretch,” which envisioned only a single opportunistic caper.

Dale supposedly is the brainy Twentyman. Mal, a butcher, is the easygoing one. Shane, the youngest, is the simmering hothead. Mr. Edgerton’s resemblance to the young Albert Finney also suggests some promising affinities that the movie isn’t prepared to confirm.

The brothers, who seem far too trusting where shyster Malone is concerned, believe he has been banking their share of the loot. Dale suspects, correctly, that Malone has been consorting with his wife, Carol Twentyman, a Mrs. Moll divertissement for Rachel Griffiths, who seems to regard the casting as an incredulous beau geste, not a bad attitude to cop under the defective circumstances.

After completing what they believe will be their last job before a sustained parole, the Twentymans are maneuvered into a harebrained, ultraviolent robbery scheme aimed at all the bookies in Melbourne on the day of the Melbourne Cup, the premier horse race of the year.

The brothers have tried to follow the motto “No one gets hurt,” which definitely goes out the window during their unwary sojourn to Melbourne. Evidently, they have about 10 minutes in which to ponder their assigned roles in this calamity. You sort of assume they’ll improvise a clever way out of the fix. Not so.

The operation turns into a bloodbath that Mr. Roberts aggravates with an even more absurd getaway. His one genuinely amusing idea — when the Twentymans coerce a ride out of the racetrack from a young woman who finds herself smitten at first sight with Mal — is rudely scuttled. Far from becoming an honorary Twentyman at the very least, this lovable ditz, Pamela (Kate Atkinson), is abandoned on the freeway back to Sydney and never retrieved, leaving the movie without a potentially redeeming subplot — and Mal without his first and last girlfriend, one gathers.

Mr. Roberts does realize that some kind of reckoning with Frank might be appropriate, but he dawdles and double-clutches his way through that showdown, which requires an epilogue that actually would make more sense as the starting point for a screenplay. In that configuration, the Twentymans would be ex-cons who need to protect themselves from being pressured into a criminal comeback. While smugly unraveling, “The Hard Word” suggests an ideal reclamation project for aspiring and perhaps unscrupulous screenwriters: Take this mercenary lemon and turn it into a smooth-driving mercenary machine.

1/2

TITLE: “The Hard Word”

RATING: R (Frequent profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity; simulated drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Scott Roberts. Cinematography by Brian Breheny.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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