Story Pile: Crackerjack

Okay, I need you to trust me on this one.

This movie is a sports drama movie about winning a tournament to save the clubhouse from a greedy real estate developer who wants to turn it into a casino. Uh, the sport in question is lawn bowls. And uh, the cast is primarily Australian and New Zealand actors from the 1960s, many of whom are unheard of outside of Australia even though they’ve done tons of work. Oh oh and the person who wrote the movie was primarily known at the time as a evening radio presenters.

Wait no, it’s good tho.

Lawn bowls, if you’re not familiar, is a pretty simple sport. You want to roll your ball so it gets as close as possible to a target. That target in this case is another, smaller ball, known as the jack. The ball you roll for this is notably larger than the jack, and it’s heavy. By the rules of the game, you do need to roll it – it can’t bounce or arch, or you’d just chuck it over other balls to land close to the jack. You roll until you’ve used up the same number of balls and the winner is the team to have put any one of their balls closest to the jack. The sport is therefore stunningly simple to describe, and then when you watch people play it you realise how bogglingly goddamn complicated it gets.

See, the jack can move.

The jack can be moved.

Oh, and all the balls rolled remain in play until the end.

So if you roll too aggressively, you might knock the jack away from the ball that hit it, and into another still ball, a ball that isn’t yours. Rolls are made to be aggressive boundaries, or to hover around the jack dead, or to create a deliberate wall against the jack, or all sorts of other strategic choices. Any given roll going well or poorly might reshape the entire play space by moving one or more other balls around. It’s played in teams, so there are strategies that involve things like getting one teammate to just set up defenses or just break up the other teams’ positions.

But at the same time, to play it, you don’t need to be fantastically fit. There’s time between rolls. There’s a patience to your strategic choices. There’s a definite gentleness to it, where the important thing is being able to do exactly the right amount. It is a rare example of a sport where particulary old people are actually kinda likely to be better at it because you benefit from practice and care in a way you don’t benefit from raw physical prowess.

It is an incredibly boring game, by reputation – bowls clubs are primarily known as a place you can go to get a nice dinner and a beer and maybe play pokies or keno while you wait. Bowls then, is boring. But also: Bowls is super interesting.

The two blokes who made the movie – known as Martin Molloy (a pair of guys, Mick Molloy and Tony Martin), got their start on variety shows as young men then radio presenters in the late 90s, then moved on to try and make bigger projects. They’ve made a few movies, and this is one of them. What does that tell you? Well, it tells you bugger-all because ‘movie made by Australian radio presenters’ doesn’t actually inform you meaningfully about it unless you already know a bunch of other Australian radio presenters.

I could talk to you extensively about the idea of cultural cringe or the way that movies get made in Australia, but the funny thing that occurred to me as I put this article together is that ‘movie made by a radio presenter’ is a sure hallmark of something that suuuucks in America, but I somehow know that despite not listening to American radio. It’s one of those interesting ways that I somehow have a cultural framework for stuff I’ve never dealt with.

This also makes it hard to explain how this movie is funny. I don’t quote it. I don’t have quotes about it. It’s got some standard comedy structures, beats and punchlines, but the way it’s funny is just in the sort of low-key constant absurdity of its premise.

Oh and that premise.

Our central character is Jack, an inner-city telemarketer worker with no particular ambition or skill who joined a Bowls club several years ago to take advantage of the parking the club has in the busy inner city, where famously, parking is rare and expensive. He takes advantage of this to rent his parking spot to a number of people, until one day the club calls him in for a meeting (to maintain his membership). From there, he falls into the plot of your typical sports drama — he’s not interested in the sport, at first, but then he learns to appreciate it, and then he discovers he’s good at it, he gets cocky, the cockiness punishes him, and then he needs to win the tournament in the eleventh hour while his friends do the most amazing things to make sure they can get to play and there ain’t no rule!

It’s funny because it’s funny to see this sport treated this seriously. It’s funny because you’ve seen this cast before or heard their voices, in serious adult dramas and historical recreations. It’s funny because everything in this movie is exactly the same structure as the ‘important’ sports movies and dramas we see on the TV, but the stakes are impossibly low thanks to the seeming unimportance of the sport, but also ridiculously high because the narrative makes it matter and there’s an actual question about what kind of things we see these clubs and institutions for in our country.

Thing is, if I show you this cast, the names won’t mean squat to you. But in aggregate, this movie has talent from Strictly Ballroom, Finding Nemo, Muriel’s Wedding, Kangaroo Jack, The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Blue Heelers, Water Rats, A Country Practice, The Secret Life Of Us, Prisoner, All Saints, Rake, Mother & Son, Home & Away, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and Rove.

Oh, and:

John Fucking Clarke. John Clarke was a kind of funny that feels alien to explain. Like so many of the best Australian actors, he’s actually a New Zealander and we pretend we didn’t notice him tell us that, over and over again. Clarke is this movie’s villain, the corrupt land developer with an impressively evenly delivered, incredibly cool dismissive oh-that’s-not-important kind of manipulation that is, again, very funny, if only because of how unserious it is that he is taking it all so seriously.

I don’t know if Crackerjack is available anywhere to stream in the US. I imagine it isn’t, because who cares? I watched it for the first time this year and I live here.

I really enjoyed this movie, sure, but I also had to respect it. I had to be impressed with the way this movie creates a tension between its ridiculous ideas and its very serious ones. I was impressed with the ways it managed to be genuine and sarcastic.

Plus there’s the way that the movie uses bowls. I’ve talked about using games in media and the way that those games being part of the media requires a certain awareness, a certain sense of the game being important. This is a movie about someone not doing enough, and learning to play a sport that is about doing enough. It’s a movie about the way your teammates can complicate things and that’s okay.

It’s a movie about doing what you can to keep getting cheap beer.

And it’s a movie about getting over yourself, because games matter, because of how we relate to one another.

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