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Tucson Weekly Small-Town Shuffle

Eccentric characters and an intriguing situation make this odd flick worth watching.

By Stacey Richter

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Love Serenade Has all the ingredients of a enjoyable, funny, offbeat movie: Eccentric characters, an evocative setting, and an unusual, intriguing situation. Though these ingredients never quite add up to a larger or more intelligent whole, they're still delightful enough in themselves to make watching this movie a satisfying experience.

Love Serenade is set in Sunray, a small Australian town that looks a lot like some weed-clogged, extinguished corner of the American Midwest. Everything in Sunray is faded or rusting--it's clearly the kind of place where nothing happens, especially not to Dimity (Miranda Otto) and Vicki Ann Hurley (Rebecca Frith), a pair of sisters shuffling through their placid, boring lives. Vicki is a hairstylist with a bad perm who favors lavender dresses; Dimity is an awkward, tomboyish waitress whom everybody finds a bit odd. "I feel like I have a marshmallow in my head, and it's getting bigger and bigger," she offers, by way of casual conversation at the breakfast table. For thrills, the girls like to go fishing.

Their little world is shaken when a slick, world-weary deejay comes to their corner of the outback from the sophisticated hamlet of Brisbane. Ken Sherry is a leathery, thrice-divorced Lothario who favors Barry White ballads and other throbbing lounge numbers. He settles into the tiny Sunray radio station--which still uses vinyl--and pontificates, from his large leatherette recliner, on life, love and "getting away from it all."

Smarmy is the adjective for this guy, who does T'ai Chi in the morning wearing a tri-color warm-up suit and gold aviator shades. He's like Tom Jones mixed with Werner Erhard and drained of all affect; George Shevtsov does a wonderful job of creating a truly, deeply insincere character who's just not there in any significant sense.

He moves into the house next door to Dimity and Vicki Ann, who are both naive enough to be instantly smitten. Vicki Ann plies him with casseroles, while Dimity tries the more direct route of taking off her clothes. "Do you want me to ease your loneliness for you?" she asks in her awkward, jerky, manner. Sherry says yes, he would like her to ease it, and with a creepy, detached sort of interest--as though he's watching an infomercial--takes her virginity.

Even with his sub-human level of engagement, the girls seem to feel Sherry has something to give them. They hang on his deejay's platitudes about life being a beautiful thing, and seem to read great wisdom into his clichés. Undeterred by the fact that her sister is having sex with the guy, Vicki Ann decides to go for it too, and a complex sibling rivalry springs up between them.

Writer/director Shirley Barrett has created an intriguing, offbeat situation for a movie, and develops the relationship between the sisters in a way that seems both comic and true. In fact, all the characters have a lively strangeness that's a lot of fun to watch. The owner of the restaurant Dimity works at is a nudist who likes to belt out western songs, and even Sherry himself is harboring some deep eccentricities.

All this is captured with stunning cinematography by Mandy Walker, who makes Sunray look lovely and utterly forgotten at the same time. The colors are faded and drab; the town is windswept and flat and almost devoid of inhabitants, though full of water tanks, abandoned drive-ins and empty orchards. Even in the landscape the filmmakers have managed to convey a sense of the empty boredom and stark beauty of small-town life.

The end of the story is too odd, in a way that doesn't add any meaning to the rest of the movie. I had the feeling that Barrett had let herself be seduced by the idea of quirkiness for its own sake, rather than in the service of the movie as a whole. The town of Sunray seemed capable of producing enough eccentrics naturally, without pushing things one step further into silliness. But if you can keep yourself from obsessing on the goofy ending, Love Serenade has enough genuine surprises and original characters to be well worth watching.

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