Roadshow head Seph McKenna recently announced that the company’s local output will no longer mimic American formats but hone in on more “Australiana” stories. Such a vague term spoken by the head of a major studio could mean anything from more regional-set dramas to a Yahoo Serious revival, but if it means less genre retreads like independent production Alex & Eve, I welcome whatever he has planned. The story bills itself as both a raucous culture clash and an honest portrayal of multi-culturalist Australia, but mires itself so deep in the tone-deaf clichés and sexism of mainstream American cinema as to come totally undone.
Alex (Richard Brancatisano) is a teacher all but ostracised by his Greek Orthodox family for not wanting to marry. Eve (Andrea Demetriades) comes from a Lebanese Muslim clan less concerned about her career in law than her marriage prospects. The two meet, hit it off, and quickly realise that neither of their overbearing families will put their grievances with the other culture to bed anytime soon. So begins a series of flirting, fumbling, and the kind of drama that show up through obligation rather than intuition, in which both main players do fine but unremarkable work with what they’re given. It’s fair that not all of the couple’s love story should feel immediate and essential, as the play it is based on was eventually compressed with its two sequels into a single show, but a surprisingly large part of that padding consists of interludes that feel like a Sydney travelogue. Key plot points conveniently take place around the Harbour Bridge: their first meeting at Miller’s point, a climax at Observatory Hill, and a first date literally on a Bridge Walk (because nothing says “romance” like walking up flights of metal stairs in grey tracksuits).1 There hasn’t been tourism board pandering of this level since Napoleon rode the monorail.
That aside, there’s plenty of rom-com story beats to tick off, and I have to assume the stale gags populating them played better on the Factory Theatre stage than here. Alex encounters Eve by spilling wine on her top, then – oops! – inadvertently groping her while trying to wipe it up. Alex’s loopy, promiscuous best friend (already another imported archetype, played here by Ryan O’Kane) gets walked out on mid-coitus by his slighted girlfriend, who turns around and does the “say goodbye to these” move that Judy Greer owns forever. Alex gets him and a group of gratingly precocious schoolkids to talk sense into him when he needs it. These tropes and more are presented in a bland aesthetic that will play just as well on an aeroplane’s in-flight system – sometimes better, in the case of some hideous composites and pick-up shots littering the last scene and credits – so any chance of good craft revitalising old tricks is dashed from frame one.
The main attractions are in the family get-togethers. If the play got the success it did from members of the portrayed cultures flocking to see their families’ quirks blown up, these blustering, rapid-fire exchanges are where the same will happen in cinemas, and it’s largely the actors playing Alex and Eve’s parents – Tony Nikolakopoulos and Zoe Carides on Alex’s side, Helen Chebatte and Simon Elrahi on Eve’s – who are to thank for these moments. They do well to charm even when the writing affords them little more than hammy outbursts and aphorisms, but contrived plot progression always swoops in to snuff out any flying sparks. There’s missed connections and hesitations galore, but the most glaring example is Mohomad, Eve’s sort-of fiance from overseas who spontaneously becomes a definite fiance and pleads for her hand in the most obliging manner possible. Poor Hazen Shammas is given nothing to work with in playing him, and inadvertently embodies the movie’s killjoy tendencies.
Worse still, these regimented story beats and gags frequently beg us to sympathise with insufferably sexist attitudes. All the independence that Eve shows throughout the movie is crumpled and thrown away like paper when the movie decides it’s time for the couple to be pulled apart, and Demetriades has little to do but look helpless and tearful for the rest of the runtime while Brancatisano does the heavy lifting. A student in Alex’s class (Nathan Melki) is elevated to the rank of a politically incorrect truth-teller, but his cracks about Eve being hot and Alex being gay for not hooking up with her would make sense for the character if not for the adults around him being confoundingly okay with what he’s saying. This is where Alex & Eve falls from being merely incompetent to leaving a bad taste in the mouth. It asks for simultaneous defenses as being a bit of light fun and a rallying cry for diversity in Australian cinema, but winds up being shamefully hollow in both regards.