Quirkiness is not in itself a virtue, and it’s the apparent belief that it is that undermines “Siam Sunset,” an odd little mixture of comedy and violence from Australian John Polson that mixes moments that seem inspired with others that strike one as queasily off-target. Presumably the intention was to achieve something along the lines of the early work of New Zealand’s Peter Jackson, which similarly combined goriness and radical farce. But in this case the ingredients don’t fully gel. Parts of the movie have an oddball charm, but too much of it is either flat or unappetizing.
The lead character, Perry Roberts (Linus Roache), is a British researcher attempting to formulate new shades of paint–including the titular dark red, which he can’t quite “get.” His life is happy–good job, beautiful wife, perfect home life–until he suddenly becomes a bad luck magnet. His wife is killed in a freak accident when a refrigerator falls on her from an airplane, and not long afterward a car crashes into his house. Believing himself a jinx, he’s reluctant to accept an all-expense trip to Australia that he wins while playing bingo with his dad; but he’s persuaded to go anyway, and soon finds himself on a run-down bus operated by Bill (Roy Billing), a bug-eyed martinet whose emphasis on rules is at least partially flamed by his hatred and envy of the much better-off competition, which runs a fleet of far more modern and efficient vehicles. Needless to say, Bill’s bus is inhabited by a tour group of eccentrics, to whom are added along the way Grace (Danielle Cormack), who crashes her car while fleeing from her brutal drug-dealer boyfriend Martin (Ian Bliss), whose stash of cash she’s absconded with. Somehow he tracks her down and winds up with the group, posing a threat to Perry as well as his erstwhile girlfriend. But before long Bill crashes the bus in a vain attempt to keep up with a competing liner, and the whole crew is stranded at a truck-stop in the remotest Australian desert, whose seedy proprietor (Robert Menzies) takes the travelers for everything he can. Eventually fate intervenes to end Martin’s menace and provide Perry with everything he’s always wanted–a Siam sunset, literally and figuratively.
Max Dann and Andrew Knight’s script is obviously intended as an off-kilter bit of whimsy that will keep audiences smiling at its offbeat tone while extracting a periodic snort of laughter from sudden intrusions of farcical violence, ranging from the abrupt departure of Perry’s wife to the bloody disposition of the maniacal Martin. But neither element is managed with sufficient dexterity. The lighthearted side of things is mostly handled by emphasizing the eccentric nature of most of the characters, like the garrulous, bickering Roy (Peter Hosking) and Arthur (Terry Kenwrick), along with Stuart (Alan Brough), a sweet-natured but rather dense would-be songwriter. By far the best ingredient in this regard is Billing, a pudgy Bob Hoskins type who invests the bus driver with a strangely endearing pugnaciousness. The violent side of the picture primarily centers on Martin, who’s much too authentically nasty a bit of goods to generate the laughs that were apparently intended, and abrupt instances of disaster (the falling refrigerator, what appears to be a small earthquake). Here it’s the bus crash that probably comes off best. But in the final analysis neither aspect of the picture entirely works. The buffoonery of the passengers has a British sitcom feel, and the harsher moments aren’t handled with enough style to make them genuinely exhilarating–Martin’s comeuppance is the most notable instance, a scene that, despite the elaborate staging, seems sloppy and rather crude.
On the positive side, Roache makes a nicely nebbishy hero, and Cormack is passable as the woman who attracts him. Even better is Billing, who, unfortunately, virtually disappears from view after the bus crash. The rest of the cast push a trifle too hard, ladling on the oddness when a soupcon would suffice. The picture also has a slightly grimy look, though the widescreen lensing by Brian Breheny is otherwise solid, but Paul Grabowsky’s score doesn’t add much.
The final scene of “Siam Sunset” summarizes what’s right and wrong with the picture. A reasonably agreeable, if fairly ordinary, moment is suddenly interrupted by a “cute” occurrence with a dangerous edge that doesn’t come off. That failure to blend very disparate elements satisfactorily marks the whole movie. Striking the proper balance is apparently as difficult for Polson as finding exactly the right proportions of different paints necessary to create the burgundy hue he has in mind is for Polson.. But Perry eventually succeeds; Polson doesn’t quite.