REVIEW – ‘Palm Beach’ is a disappointingly flat piece of cinema without any real stakes or semblance of drama

The reunion movie is almost a genre within itself. Whether it’s a group of friends coming together again for the first time in years or a fractured family reconnecting after a catalytic event, these films generally involve the revelation of a few major secrets that have been festering in the shadows. Such is the appearance of new Australian film Palm Beach; a film which presents itself as a wicked weekend getaway where old friends will finally confront their equally-old demons.

While there are plenty of skeletons in the closet for this film to unfurl, the narrative consistently chooses to avoid exploring them deeply enough for an audience to be remotely affected by anything taking place on-screen. A laidback and carefree piece of cinema with the lowest of stakes, Palm Beach falls under the weight of its own decadence and affluence, portraying little more than an unsympathetic picture that leaves little impression.

With his 73rd birthday approaching, Frank (Bryan Brown) has invited a few old friends to join his wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi) and their two adult children Ella (Matilda Brown) and Dan (Charlie Vickers) at their dazzling waterfront home overlooking Sydney’s gorgeous Palm Beach. Arriving via seaplane are Leo (Sam Neill), his younger wife Bridget (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her daughter Caitlin (Frances Berry) and Billy (Richard E. Grant) and his actress wife Eva (a stellar Heather Mitchell). Also joining the party is Holly (Claire van der Boom), the daughter of a late female friend of Frank and co., who arrives with her latest boyfriend, Doug (Aaron Jeffrey), a no-nonsense sheep-farmer with a heart of gold.

Frank, Leo, and Billy hit it big in the late 1970s with their pub rock group the Pacific Sideburns and their one-hit-wonder “Fearless.” But fame was fleeting, and the band went their separate ways years ago. After his music career died, Frank launched a surf clothing label, which he has just sold for a small fortune, much to the envy of narcissistic Billy, who’s been embarrassingly relegated to pumping out kitschy jingles for television commercials in Europe. After surviving a melanoma cancer scare, veteran journalist Leo is now questioning much of his life, particularly a mysterious pact he formed with Charlotte years ago; a pact he now wants to renege on.

As the secretive agreement threatens to be revealed, creating plenty of tension for both Charlotte and Leo, the group of old friends and family reconnect through a series of lavish and alcohol-fueled meals and events in the opulence of the Frank and Charlotte’s magnificent Northern Beaches mansion. But as the weekend continues, there are more secrets to uncover, old wounds to heal, and, evidently, an entire cellar full of champagne to guzzle down.

On its surface, Palm Beach certainly appears to be a drama-infused calamity, filled with brutally honest confrontations at every turn. And it certainly could have been, had the film been committed to tackling the moments of tension it bizarrely manifests and then decides to completely ignore. Presenting itself as The Big Chill 40-years later, it’s ultimately a disappointingly flat piece of cinema without any real stakes or semblance of drama. Every single time the screenplay by director Rachel Ward and Joanna Murray Smith offers a moment of genuine drama, it seemingly tosses it aside by the next scene, blindly refusing to delve deeper into, well, anything.

At one point, it’s discovered Frank has been secretly diagnosed with depression, which he is attempting to manage with antidepressants. It’s naturally a startling moment for an audience to see a man who seemingly has everything one could ever want still be hit by the curse of this crippling mental illness. It presents a wonderful narrative opportunity for the film to dive into the very relevant topic of male depression and the very real fact it can hit anyone. But it’s frustratingly barely inspected or even mentioned again. The affliction even appears to be cured by Frank finally taking a hacksaw to a neighbour’s chimney (to the refrains of “Born to Be Wild,” for some unknown reason), which has been mildly obscuring his perfect beach view. Right then.

The screenplay consistently tip-toes around numerous narrative ideas which could have been mined to wonderful effect. Painful regrets of the past, the melancholy over missed opportunities, the miserable monotony of retired life, and the terrifying prospects of what lies ahead for those in their mid-70s are all touched upon, but without any real purpose or intent to follow through. The spectre of affluence hovers over this entire film, making it genuinely difficult to feel any sense of empathy for what’s occurring to these characters. That’s not to suggest rich people don’t have genuine problems in their lives. It’s just insanely difficult for an audience to care about such woes while these characters do a spot of yoga, down their umpteenth bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne, or devour a sumptuous feast of king prawns and quinoa salad, all within the comfy confines of a lavish manor.

With a terrific ensemble cast at her disposal, Ward sadly wastes the impressive talents of most the impeccable actors, particularly Grant, who is far from his show-stopping best. They all give typically good performances and each one appears to be having a wonderful time on location in the film’s titular locale. But you’ll likely walk away forgetting most of what the cast had to offer, bar Mitchell who is blessed with a fascinating subplot regarding her character’s fast-fading career. Once a bombshell of the screen, Eva has chosen to age gracefully, meaning the job offers are now drying up. But a laughable offer to play Nicole Kidman’s mother arrives via her agent, despite the fact the Oscar-winning actress is only a few years younger than Eva. It’s a fascinating insight into the uncomfortable reality facing veteran actresses like Mitchell herself. Frankly, a spin-off starring just Mitchell and Grant wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

If nothing else, Palm Beach serves as a wonderful tourism commercial for Sydney’s stunning Northern Beaches, with the region looking dazzlingly picturesque and warmly inviting. Cinematographer Bonnie Elliott takes deft delight in highlighting the immaculate beaches and waterfront views to showcase the area’s impressive beauty. It’s no surprise to see the film was partly funded by Destination NSW aka the government tourism agency who will no doubt be hoping Elliott’s work will cause a surge of weekend getaway bookings from the film’s target retiree demographic.

Look, I am clearly not the intended market for a film like Palm Beach. But it should not matter. A great film will breakthrough with audiences of any age, gender, or socioeconomic status if there’s enough meat on its bones to truly sink your teeth into. This film is just so incessantly light and breezy, it’s almost impossible to connect with, particularly if your bank balance makes you want to weep with sorrow. This is a piece of cinema that fails to understand its jarring irrelevancy to the majority of the world who could only dream their biggest problem in life was reaching the bottom of a champagne bottle or having their beach view ruined by someone else’s chimney stack.

Regardless, it’s a joy to see so many wonderful Australian actors together on screen, even if they’re seemingly doing nothing more than enjoying a paid vacation away together and also happening to make a film at the same time. Enjoyable enough to listlessly watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Palm Beach is a film without any real intention or purpose. Keep that in mind, and you just might be swept up in the carefree frivolity.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Bryan Brown, Greta Scacchi, Richard E. Grant, Sam Neill, Heather Mitchell, Aaron Jeffery, Jacqueline McKenzie, Charlie Vickers, Frances Berry, Claire van der Boom, Matilda Brown, Felix Williamson
Director: Rachel Ward
Producers: Deborah Balderstone, Bryan Brown
Screenplay: Joanna Murray-Smith, Rachel Ward
Cinematography: Bonnie Elliott
Music: The Teskey Brothers
Production Design: Melinda Doring
Editing: Nick Meyers
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: 8th August 2019 (Australia)