The matter with mater

Because it in part tells the story of a doughty veteran of the nightclub comic circuit, Clubland was the original title of Introducing the Dwights when it was released in its country of origin, Australia. Jean Dwight is a raunchy menopausal jester who lives to charm an audience. However, the charm has long since worn off her ex-husband, John, who complains, “Nothing matters as long as it’s Jeannie in the spotlight.” Jeannie holds the spotlight for most of the film, from 5 a.m., when she begins her busy days, until after midnight, when family and friends converge to quell her hysteria. Her frantic efforts to wish herself into a star offer some of the pathos of Laurence Olivier’s performance in The Entertainer or of Billy Crystal’s in the underrated Mr. Saturday Night. The mother of all battle axes, she nurses deep regrets and bullies her brood with bitter reminders of what she, a near-celebrity in her native England, sacrificed for them.

Reminiscent of the maternal monster that Brenda Blethyn played in the 1998 film Little Voice, Jean occupies center stage in the life of her oldest son, Mark (Wilson), a 22-year-old child who has been disabled from birth. But dominating her other son, Tim (Chittenden), is more of a challenge. At 21, Tim chafes at the apron strings that are strangling him as effectively as the umbilical cord that cut off oxygen to Mark in the womb. Given an American title that echoes Inventing the Abbotts and Meet the Fockers, Introducing the Dwights dramatizes a troubled family whose mater swallows all the oxygen. Jean is a theatrical dynamo who would if she could rewrite Oedipus as Jocasta’s vindication.

Young, nubile, and in love with timorous Tim, Jill (Booth) is a threat to Jean’s monopoly over her younger son’s loyalties. Tim drives a moving van, and, after meeting Jill on an assignment, is moved to relinquish his virginity. Encounters between the two are awkward, anxious, torrid, and tender and offer some of the film’s most affecting moments.

But Jill, a clerk at an automobile-muffler shop, soon realizes that Jean is out to stifle her, and she issues an ultimatum. “You’ve got to make a choice,” she tells Tim. “It’s me, or it’s her.” When a robber commanded, “Your money or your life,” Jack Benny hesitated. Tim, too, is painfully torn between mother and lover.

Set in working-class Sydney, in the low-rent end of the entertainment industry, Introducing the Dwights is an affable counterpoint to Hollywood glamour. Tim and Jill make a winsome pair, and Tim’s father, a supermarket security guard whose ambitions as a country singer exceed his talent, is another Dwight worth introducing. Banished out to pasture, he is a bull who has been cowed. The film’s ending is facile, and a sentimental streak keeps director Cherie Nowlan from gazing too directly at the darkness down under.

 Introducing the Dwights
Dir. Cherie Nowlan; writ. Keith Thompson; feat. Brenda Blethyn,  Khan Chittenden, Emma Booth, Richard Wilson (R)


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