The Breaker Upperers

July 21, 2018
Singing a different tune. Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami hard at work

The Breaker Upperers, which screened on opening night of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, got a riotous reception on an evening when everybody was in the mood for a party. Will it survive more sober assessments? It’s crude, vulgar and slapdash, so don’t go along expecting the Lubitsch touch.

The film is a two-hander for comedians Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami, who have written, directed and starred in a tale that gives the impression everyone in New Zealand is an incipient sex maniac (when they’re not being a overt sex maniac). The story feels as if it were being made up on the spot, while the cinematography seems to have been modelled on home movies. The entire venture reads like a procession of skits from a TV comedy show, minus the commercials.

The saving grace with The Breaker Upperers that it’s so relentlessly silly and good-natured it defies criticism. Despite the endless outpouring of smut and sexual innuendo it’s also strangely innocent, as if sex were on a par with making lunch or gardening. Nothing as serious or truly exciting as say, rugby.

Sami and van Beek play Mel and Jen, two enterprising small businesswomen who help their clients escape from unhappy relationships. They have various devious strategies for achieving this goal. It might mean turning up at a door to sing a country-and-western song, play-acting the part of a jilted lover, staging a kidnapping, or dressing up as policewomen to break the bad news that someone’s partner is missing, presumed dead.

This is precisely what Mel and Jen are doing when the film begins: paying a house call to a woman named Anna (Celia Pacquola), to alert her that her boyfriend – who has flown the coop – is almost certainly a goner. Anna’s reaction is so hysterically tragic Mel feels sorry for her, and compromises the cool efficiency of the operation. The token Australian in the movie, Anna is given plenty of airtime, but her persona is incoherent from start to finish.

The Anna plotline is revisited whenever the directors feel like it, in the meantime a second story is developing around an 18-year-old Maori boy named Jordan (James Rolleston), who wants to escape from his tough-as-nails girlfriend, Sepa (Ana Scotney). Being one of the thickest characters ever to stand in front of a camera, Jordan can’t figure out how to do this. He is like so many of Mel and Jen’s clients, described succinctly as “weak arseholes who don’t have the guts to talk to their partners.” Even before the deed is accomplished Jordan has become fixated on Mel, who strikes him as the very model of an alluring older woman.

Mel knows it’s not allowed to get involved with the clients but since hunky 18-year-old boys don’t throw themselves at one’s feet every day, the temptation is too strong. The relationship with Jordan has a catastrophic impact on the business, leaving Jen to work solo. She is furious with Mel, but misses her desperately. Alone and miserable she wonders whether she could work herself up to some height of sapphic passion and win her back.

The seemingly careless attitude as to whether one is straight or gay or bi is one of the leitmotifs of this story. We learn that Jen and Mel met after they both went out with the same shiftless man. Since then Jen’s own lovelife seems to consist of mechanical one-night stands secured from dating agencies. This contrasts with her mother (Rima Te Waita), a geriatric sexbomb whose bawdiness makes even Jen feel prudish. There must be something in the water.

When you direct, write and star in your own movie, there is, of course, the temptation to indulge in a little fantasy. In your late 30s, early 40s it’s unlikely a Hollywood producer will invite you to play a role in which you’re sexually desirable to tout le monde. How nice it must be, in faraway Aotearoa, to do exactly what you please, both behind and in front of the camera.

If you think this is a Kiwi movie without Taika Waititi, think again. He’s the executive producer. Both van Beek and Sami were in his vampire spoof, What We Do in the Shadows (2014), while the young James Rolleston starred in Waititi’s debut film, Boy (2010). The ubiquitous Jemaine Clement has a cameo in The Breaker Upperers, as one of Jen’s ephemeral boyfriends.

It’s one of the features of that part of the New Zealand film industry which has nothing to do with hobbits that the entire thing feels so relaxed. Movies give the impression they are being created by a small, close-knit group of friends chiefly dedicated to having a good time. It’s not deep but it’s pretty funny – if you can get through the accents and the slang, which would render the film unintelligible in the United States. Do Sami and van Beek care? They’ve produced a shamelessly provincial feature that puts a new twist on some universal dilemmas. The most refreshing aspect of this anarchic, gleefully amateurish comedy is that they are intent on making a movie, not a statement.

The Breaker Upperers
Written & directed by Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek
Starring Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celia Pacquola, Ana Scotney, Rima Te Wiata, Cohen Holloway
New Zealand, rated M, 90 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 July, 2018