Movie Review: Pork Pie - an update that lacks the original's spice

Studio Canal

Pork Pie opens in New Zealand cinemas on February 2.

Pork Pie (M,105 mins) Directed by Matt Murphy ★★½

A long time ago, I found a copy of Geoff Murphy's 1981 film  Goodbye Pork Pie in a video shop in Denmark. I showed it to my flatmates that night.

They liked the film a lot, made the usual comments about how beautiful New Zealand looked, and then asked "are New Zealanders really like that?" 

I thought for a moment and then said "yep, we pretty much are". 

Goodbye Pork Pie was shot in 1979, but not finished for release until 1981. I guess New Zealand at the time was a country much in need of a few masculine myths that involved something other than sheep and rugby. 

Murphy and the crew – including son Matt, who has directed this "re-imagining" – came along at exactly the right time with a robust, funny, deceptively thoughtful and tough little film that gave New Zealanders permission to have an overdue laugh at ourselves and ponder our own emotional constipation.

Dean O'Gorman's John is written as a shallow man-child with an emotional range barely out of adolescence.
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Dean O'Gorman's John is written as a shallow man-child with an emotional range barely out of adolescence.

Even seen from three decades distance, the film is exactly the local classic it was hailed at the time. Some of the sexual politics run the gamut from quaint to queasy when viewed through a 21st Century lens, but overall,Goodbye Pork Pie holds up very well.

It is a tight, busy, relentlessly inventive and truly big-hearted film. It descends smoothly from madcap farce, through dark comedy to end on a couple of scenes that deserve to be mentioned alongside any of the classic, near-nihilist American road movies that inspired it. In its very best moments, Goodbye Pork Pie is an existential epic-in-miniature that we only underestimate because we're New Zealanders, so praise and long words make us uncomfortable.

Along with Sleeping DogsSmash Palace, Utu and a handful of others, Goodbye Pork Pie is one of the founding documents of the modern New Zealand film industry. 

So, why remake it?

While the new Pork Pie's car chases echo that of the original, the 2017 version lacks a real baddie.
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While the new Pork Pie's car chases echo that of the original, the 2017 version lacks a real baddie.

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I dunno. And now that I've seen the remake, I'm not sure it's a question anyone ever had a valid answer for.

Seen as a standalone movie, without any knowledge of the film that inspired it, I'm guessing this new Pork Pie gets a pass as a sporadically funny action comedy with a couple of nicely-staged flourishes.

And perhaps I should only review Pork Pie for what it is and ignore its parentage. But if that was what the film makers wanted, why call it Pork Pie at all? Why not just make a different film?

Seen as a standalone movie, Pork Pie gets a pass as a sporadically funny action comedy with a couple of nicely-staged ...
Supplied

Seen as a standalone movie, Pork Pie gets a pass as a sporadically funny action comedy with a couple of nicely-staged flourishes.

So, here goes.

Pork Pie isn't a bad film. There's too much talent behind and in front of the camera for that. Matt Murphy knows how to chuck a car around a gravel corner just as well as the old man. But that is kind of the problem. Pork Pie only really comes to life when it is quoting from the source.

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The chase around central Wellington, the escape in the railcar, and the roadside promise that kicks off the film's final stanza are all present and correct and they all still work. 

But the new story and characters the writers have concocted to link these scenes, mostly don't stand comparison to the original.

Dean O'Gorman's Jon is written as a shallow man-child with an emotional range barely out of adolescence. That we are asked to believe Jon is also a successful novelist trying to dodge a – female, of course – ball-breaking editor plays like a cliché from another decade. As does the idea that Antonia Prebble's character would be seduced by his narcissistic flailings.

Next to O'Gorman, James Rolleston and Ashleigh Cummings both do their best with underwritten roles. Rolleston's Luke hasn't been allowed the anarchy at the heart of Kelly Johnston's Gerry Austin from the 1981 film, so his motivation for even taking the roadtrip is murky at best. Cumming's Keira seems to exist only for Luke to fall for and to spark the social media storm that follows the car down the country.

Pork Pie only really comes to life when it is quoting from the source.
Supplied

Pork Pie only really comes to life when it is quoting from the source.

The script, fatally, never sets up a real antagonist to test the trio's resolve. Whereas the original posited Marshall Napier's hard-ass supercop and John Bach's demented fan as the monsters our heroes would have to defeat to enter a new realm of the narrative, this remake ignores, or misunderstands, the tough chassis of mythic structure that underpinned the 1981 film. 

A few cops come and go, but they are played strictly for laughs. An attempt to re-create the John Bach sequence is strained and awkward. Matt Murphy tries to wring laughs out of a scene that only makes dramatic sense if it is allowed to become truly dark and – literally – foreboding.

Suspension of disbelief is a gift of trust from the audience to the film-makers. There are too many moments in Pork Pie that abuse that trust.

It pains me to write this. I have friends and colleagues who worked on this film. They all came back to town fizzing with enthusiasm at how it was going to turn out. I went into the screening sincerely hoping I was about to see something I liked. 

I don't like writing negative reviews of New Zealand-made films. It's cost me friends over the years, and probably will do again. But, I'm paid to do this job as honestly as I can. And I don't trust or respect reviewers who go easy on the local product or their friend's films any more than you do.

I hope Pork Pie is a success, that it finds an audience and that thousands of people like it a lot more than I did.

But if I walked into that video shop in Denmark today and saw this and the original next to each other on the shelf, it wouldn't even be a contest.

 - Stuff

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