[Deep Focus]

There are, apparently, no compact discs in the tiny Australian burg of Sunray. Therefore, when former big-city DJ Ken Sherry arrives in town to take over the dilapidated local radio station, he selects tracks for airplay from what must be a severely limited selection of cheesy 70s classics. And so it is that this new Australian comedy has a soundtrack by the likes of Dionne Warwick ("What the World Needs Now" is love), Van McCoy ("The Hustle," ouch) and Barry White (the titular "Love Serenade," hoo boy).

Unconscionable as that may seem, the music works brilliantly. Love Serenade injects those chestnuts with a good natured but deliberate irony that's key to the darkly comic mood. They're an efficient shorthand for the smarmy pseudoromantic posturings of the DJ, played to the deadpan hilt by gangly Australian actor George Shevtsov. Weary of the urban rat race, Jim Sherry stopped the world and got off at Sunray, as he melodramatically informs his listeners on his first day on the air. Ken Sherry (that's how he's referred to throughout the film) is enough of a celebrity that his relocation to Sunray qualifies as something of an event in town, and it turns the lives of Dimity and Vickie-Ann Hurley upside-down.

Ken Sherry, you see, has moved in next door to the shy 20-year-old waitress Dimity and her brash older sister Vicki-Ann, a hairdresser who's desperately seeking a husband. He's less than charmed when Vicki-Ann tries to force her way into his life by bringing over first a carp ("I don't eat fish," he tells her, unsmiling) and then a chicken casserole. He does, however, take an apparent fancy to her younger sibling, much to Vicki-Ann's dismay and Dimity's blind hormonal delight.

After taking a fancy, Ken Sherry takes advantage. And, in this exceedingly clever and well-acted comedy, that's where most of the fun begins. Like In the Company of Men (written and directed by a man), Love Serenade (written and directed by a woman) takes pains to show us exactly what shits men can be. But while the man's movie insists on hypothesizing why the men are shits, the woman's movie takes it as a given and milks it for wry situational comedy. Love Serenade simply doesn't try that hard to figure men out, and I'll admit that I fell for its offhanded quirkiness.

Miranda Otto plays Dimity as a nervous teen, all agog at Ken's ridiculous seen-it-all persona and agiggle at the prospect of giving him a kiss -- and, soon enough, her virginity. She bicycles out to the radio station and parks underneath the PA system, listening to Ken Sherry's relentless regimen of soul classics blare out into the sky above Sunray. Rebecca Frith's caricature of the older, more frustrated Vicki-Ann (her last lover met his end in an unfortunate accident with a chainsaw) is sort of a working class version of one of those daffy women from Absolutely Fabulous. She wears a shade of lavender lipstick that matches most of her wardrobe as well as her brittle personality. Both of the women are eventually guilty of jumping to conclusions -- but Ken Sherry is equally guilty for knowing full well that he's a manipulator of hearts and minds and doing nothing to help them cope but spout more Desiderata-style sophistry.

Shevtsov is something of a marvel in this role, managing to play a vaguely sleazy faux sophisticate with a level of charm that keeps him appealing -- and therefore credible as a cut-rate Don Juan. It's obvious from his manner that he considers this small town -- and likely all the women in it -- fairly easy pickings after his tenure in the big city. He's moved away from civilization so that he can enjoy his peace and quiet and feel smugly superior to it all at the same time. The indifferent bleakness of Sunray, set against the bronze-tinted emptiness of the Australian countryside, will be familiar to anyone who's lived at arm's length from the urban sprawl, and it makes the women's vulnerability credible.

Comedy aside, there's some really funny business going on in Love Serenade, but I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you. Not everything we learn about Ken Sherry makes logical sense, but it does fit together somehow, somewhere in our heads. There's a danger in overpraising a movie like this -- it's really just a strikingly competent first feature that benefits from winning performances all around and a spot-on sense of comic timing. But it qualifies as the most pleasant surprise of the year so far.

Written and Directed by Shirley Barrett
Cinematography by Mandy Walker
Starring Miranda Otto, Rebecca Frith, and George Shevtsov
Australia, 1996

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