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Kenny

dir: Clayton Jacobson
[img_assist|nid=863|title=A good man is hard to find|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
A lot has been written about Kenny, both its success and the film itself. At least in Australia, since I can’t imagine the rest of the world giving a tinker’s dam about it. And its success at the AFI awards also points to Kenny’s acceptance and approval from a country notoriously averse to watching its own films.

Kenny has struck a chord with Australian audiences, and there are a good number of reasons why. As played by Shane Jacobson (whose brother wrote the screenplay and directs), Kenny Smythe is the kind of salt-of-the-earth character that you feel obligated to get behind or risk feeling like the most humourless and elitist of curmudgeons. It is that very calculation that goes to how the character is written and portrayed, which sounds cynical, because it is cynical. But it gets the job done.

This comedy has the format of a documentary, or a mockumentary, to use the latest nomenclature. It all focuses on Kenny’s daily grind as he waxes lyrical and philosophical constantly to camera. As such, you could say the movie is a character study of one working-class quiet achiever just trying to get by in this turvy topsy world.

Kenny’s job has to do with shit. Not metaphorically, but literally. His daily bread is dependent on the continual need to dispose of human waste, which the saintliest to the lowliest of us all contributes to. A plumber by trade, he works for a company that provides portaloos to festivals and big events.

He works with a bunch of strange co-workers, which makes sense, since anyone who works has at least a few strange co-workers. As strange and as unprofessional towards their jobs as they may be, he gets along well with all of them the way he gets along with everybody. He lives modestly in a shack of a place, and spends 90 per cent of the film working.

The few times we see him away from work usually involves seeing Kenny with his family. He is divorced, but still gets along well with his son Jesse (played by Jacobson’s son Jesse), and brings him along on visits to see his own father (played by Jacobson’s actual father). The father is a less than supportive parent, and constantly gives his son shit about his job (no pun intended). Kenny takes it all with his world-weary good humour, never bridling against his father’s worst comments or the slings and arrows of outrageous insults. The father, like Kenny’s ex-wife, looks down on Kenny for the work he does, but Kenny is proud of the hard work he does, and so he should be.

It is supposed to be a comedy, certainly, but it is really more of a character study. If the audience doesn’t come to appreciate Kenny for all of his sheer wonderfulness, then they’re not likely to really care enough to get any of the humour or to get why such a film is supposed to be enjoyable in the first place.

And it certainly is. They really spend a lot of time on crafting the character, which pays off later on in the more formulaic segments that are inevitably required in any flick.

You’d assume, given Kenny’s profession, that there’d have to be a certain amount of toilet humour in the movie, and you’d be right. But the movie never stoops so low that it goes for the outright gross-out gag when it can work far more effectively with implied situations.

Above that, Kenny’s funniest moments are generally the almost surreal comments Kenny keeps firing off in machine-gun fashion throughout the film. The movie plays on the idea of the tradie who, used to working independently, loves to have an audience, and loves reeling off constant streams of anecdotes and tortured similes to anyone that will listen. For the most part, that listener is us, the audience.

There are some splendid lines on offer, quintessentially Australian lines. He predicts that at the Melbourne Cup, he and his co-workers will be “busier than a one-armed brick layer in Baghdad”, and describing his beloved (and departed) mother, he describes her as looking, from the back, “like a fridge with a head on it”. On marriage, he advises a colleague to “cut out the middle man, just find someone you hate and buy them a house.” Above and beyond whether the lines are funny or not, it really comes down to Kenny’s delivery that sells the lines, and whilst it’s rarely laugh out loud funny, it’s pretty amusing all the same.

Most of the movie is plot-free, but at some stage the plot kicks in to give Kenny something of a character arc, to give him somewhere to go and grow, I guess. I don’t know if it works that well, but it’s nothing that stands too much in the way of enjoying the movie. Kenny’s boss sends him to a convention in Tennessee, where we get a few of the stock-standard plot devices thrown into the equation: romance, fish out of water, the big break, and then the hurried return due to a medical crisis in the family. They may be clichés, but they’re Kenny’s clichés, and are therefore tolerable.

It’s interesting that the characters who are the least sympathetic and the nastiest to Kenny are the actor’s real life brother and father playing the character’s brother and father. In a scene both funny and sad, Kenny’s attempt to get to his brother’s birthday after a long day are derided by the brother, who is horrified by his brother’s appearance at a swanky wanky bar. Kenny’s dad treats him like a leper when he visits, getting him to place covers between himself and anything he touches, and getting him to take off his work clothing for fear of contamination.

Other scenes highlight people’s hypocrisy towards Kenny, who deride him for his profession and ridicule him for having such a lowly place in society, all in anticipation of showing themselves up to be the complete pigs that they are. Another aspect highlights a somewhat anti-intellectual streak in the movie, whereby a casual employee hired to help at a peak time proves himself to be completely useless, we are lead to believe, because he is a university student. These aren’t fatal flaws, every flick needs its villains, even in a mockumentary format.

The film ends on an uncharacteristically vengeful note. After a film’s worth of Kenny enduring all sorts of hardships and insults slung at him, which he absorbs with his almost Zen-like calm, he finally gets pushed to far, and shows someone how unwise it is to piss off someone who works in the waste management industry.

If the film works at all, it is solely because of Shane Jacobson’s portrayal of Kenny. You cannot enjoy the film if you don’t get and don’t like the character. Everything else is superfluous and immaterial. So that will be the deciding factor in terms of whether this film fills viewers with gentle good humour or murderous rage. I was left with an abundance of the former, and only a smattering of the later.

8 times I admire his work ethic, but could never contemplate doing that sort of job even in hell, out of 10

--
“Mate, it's not that I'm not listening. But there's a smell in there that will outlast religion"- Kenny

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