Film and television’s gain has been theatre’s loss. Sydney playwright Tony McNamara appeared to be following in David Williamson’s footsteps with his likable mainstage productions for the Sydney and Melbourne theatre companies and others in 1990s and 2000s.
The Cafe Latte Kid, The Virgin Mim and The Recruit suggested a career writing for the stage was his for the asking. But it soon became apparent theatre was a happy diversion for the former stockbroker.
McNamara was accepted into the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, and wrote and directed The Rage in Placid Lake, starring Ben Lee and Rose Byrne, in 2002. Then television — including Love My Way, Tangle and Puberty Blues took him further away from the stage.
Film remains the itch he continues to scratch. His latest film, Ashby, premiered earlier this year in the US and was released quietly on digital platforms this month. It is a pleasing development for the Sydneysider, even if it is not quite the complete film he might have hoped to make.
Ashby has a bit of Harold and Maude about it beyond the lead character’s name, which presumably is a nod to the director of the 1971 classic, Hal Ashby.
And it’s not a far-fetched compliment to suggest McNamara’s writing has always had a bit of Ashby about it: it’s dramatic with an underlying wit and darkness. It’s a subtle balance, though, and Ashby, like this film, mostly seemed to struggle to nail it.
McNamara’s film has a very appealing cast, led by Mickey Rourke and including Sarah Silverman, Emma Roberts and Kevin Dunn.
Rourke plays Ashby, a former CIA assassin whiling away his time, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, in the anonymity of unnamed US suburb.
Unfortunately, Ashby’s teenage next-door neighbour, Ed (Nat Wolff), has a school project that involves talking to an old person.
You can guess the rest: the grizzled old guy warms to the awkward teen, and the teen helps Ashby right some wrongs from his own past.
McNamara’s dialogue and jokes are wonderful but his jumble of genres chips away at the film’s cohesion.
Ed’s demeanour and his elevation into the school football team are a little John Hughes, as are a number of supporting performances, including Ed’s teacher Eloise (Roberts) and Silverman as his mum.
But Rourke, the crime comedy and Ashby’s retribution are not part of the project’s Hughes-themed aspects.
A joke forgives all in DVD Letterbox’s world, though, and McNamara has more than enough in this uneven film.
Hopefully he’ll get more cracks at cinema, and his films will get better.
Nonetheless, it’s theatre’s loss.