Prior to the media preview screening of Palm Beach, director/co-writer Rachel Ward and lead star/producer Bryan Brown put their best face forward to hype up their breezy collaboration. She stressed the importance of being a woman behind the camera, how she made sure the majority of department heads were also women, and that the film itself would have a strong female perspective. He waxed lyrical on the importance of the story being told, saying that what’s being depicted here is happening all over the world, seemingly indicating there’d be some depth to the proceedings.
Whatever film Ward and Brown were discussing is one I would like to see, because as it stands Palm Beach is a deliriously average, often meandering, and identity-void dramedy that has nothing to say beyond “even though we’re rich and privileged, we have problems too”.
Treading in shallower waters than its titular location, Palm Beach introduces us to an extended group of life-long friends who reunite along the stunning picturesque millionaire’s row of Sydney’s northern beaches to celebrate the birthday of Frank (Bryan Brown), a former music manager who lives spectacularly comfortably with his loving wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi). What starts out as an alcohol-heavy shindig-come-memory lane trip turns predictably sour between the group when secrets, lies, and resentments rear their heads, threatening to break a 30-year friendship.
For Frank and Charlotte it’s the possibility that their son (Charlie Vickers) may not biologically be Frank’s due to a past tryst with Leo (Sam Neill). For Leo’s wife (an underused, and under-developed Jacqueline McKenzie) it’s the disconnection she can’t comprehend. For the pompous Billy (Richard E. Grant) it’s his status in the advertising industry, and for his ageing actress wife (Heather Mitchell) it’s that she has to come to terms with how she is now being viewed in an industry that favours youth.
All of these conveniently-timed plot strands reveal themselves over time, with the narrative melodrama backed by either a boozy lunch, a fancy dinner, or an attractive picnic to add some aesthetic pleasure to a film that otherwise coasts on its reliable cast. Admittedly the ensemble here do the best with what they’re given, but, almost as you’d expect, Brown has saddled himself with the meatiest part, leaving Neill with alarmingly little to do and Grant to fill the humour quota – and even then he’s reaching for material of comedic substance.
The women fare worse, surprisingly, with McKenzie barely registering throughout, despite the implication that her character has a serious drinking problem (a subplot that perhaps could’ve added a little weight to Leo’s seeming indifference to her), and both Scacchi and Mitchell left with little more than being the fed-up wives who ultimately forgive their lousy husbands who don’t deserve the pass. For a film that has such a strong female presence behind the scenes, it makes the decision to give the women on screen – all capable actresses too – such trite material all the more confusing and infuriating.
Less a production and more a healthy tax write-off for Ward and company, Palm Beach was most likely a joy to film, and there are certainly moments on levity and gaiety that showcase the natural charisma of such a reliable cast, but these sporadic touches aren’t enough to wipe away the wealthy, white privilege stain that is smeared over the frame.