Harry Joy (Barry Otto) lived a mundane life out in the Australian suburbs, working as an advertising executive, married with a couple of teenage kids, and he loved to tell stories, just as his father used to tell him stories. However, one day on his birthday, he was at a small party in his house with his family and a couple of friends when he ventured out into the garden only to keel over from a heart attack. He was dead for four minutes until the medics revived him, but after that he was never very sure if he was actually in the afterlife or not...
And if he was in the afterlife, was he in heaven or was he in hell? Ray Lawrence, never the most prolific of filmmakers, made this adaptation of Peter Carey's novel to some acclaim in Australia, but seen from this remove it's tempting to consider it overrated. It was apparently designed for middle aged men entering their mid-life crises, so Harry, who is indeed one of those men, tries to make sense of the world around him and realises that everything he thought he knew may not exactly be true. For example, his wife Bettina (Lynette Curran) is having an affair with his friend, something illustrated by having the two of them have sex in full view of oblivious restaurant patrons.
Yes, we were in surrealist territory, and that meant several bizarre scenes and images that in movie form did not quite fit in with the rather routine drama they were being married to. The trouble was that for all its bells and whistles of weirdness, there was an unexceptional story at the centre of this, and while Harry was sympathetic enough, he did not particularly merit the attention a two hour movie would have awarded him if it had not been for the odd paths and incidents that were bolted onto his experiences. Therefore you can be diverted by such scenes as his son demanding a blow job from his sister in return for cocaine, but not much of it had any resonance.
You never felt as if you were watching someone's authentic worldview, as it came across as too much of a writer's construct - and that was another issue in that you got the impression that this would probably have been wise and witty on the page, yet simply did not translate to the cinema (that might not have been your opinion if you'd read the novel, however). After his heart attack, Harry is set on his course to self-fulfilment, and that will not involve his family, who are all revealed pretty swiftly to be a corrupt lot, but couple that to his disillusionment with his job in advertising, and you have a man unsure of where to go next, after all his whole meaning in life revolved around those things.
This spends far too long in offering Harry his light at the end of the tunnel, and as a consequence you may find it dragging from one blackly comic vignette to another, so whether you actually laugh at this is another question. On the other hand, Lawrence did come up with some genuinely striking images, and you can tell his feeling for Harry's predicament is sincere as he moves from everyday existence to getting back to nature and trying to woo the prostitute, Honey Barbara (Helen Jones), who he senses can bring about his redemption. Will she be won over, or will such incidents as Harry having his car sat upon by an elephant and being arrested by the police for the state of his vehicle, or more awkward, being admitted to a mental hospital, put a spanner in the works of his improvement? The answer arrives by and by, but sustaining the interest may be too much for the average viewer. Music by Peter Best.