The Castle is a modest little comedy from Australia that falls into the subgenre of Capraesque idealism, in the little-guy-triumphs-over-evil-powers-that-be division. The story revolves around the unpretentious Kerrigan clan: Darryl (Michael Caton), the father, has his own little towing business. Sal (Anne Tenney), the mother, is the family cook, and not a very inspired one--a fact that completely escapes her husband, who praises every meat loaf and hamburger as though it were a unique concoction.
Tracey (Sophie Lee), their only daughter, has just married an accountant with a devotion to kickboxing, clearly a step up the class ladder. Darryl brags that Tracey is the first one in the family ever to go to college--her cosmetology diploma hangs in a place of honor. Son Steve (Anthony Simcoe) spends his days hunting for bargains in the classifieds; son Wayne (Wayne Hope) is serving time for bank robbery; and son Dale (Stephen Curry)...well, it's not clear what Dale does, beyond narrating the movie and proudly digging random holes in the yard.
The Kerrigans live in the small town of Cooloroo on the outskirts of Melbourne, right next to the airport. Their pleasantly run-down house is in a never-completed neighborhood where the property values are always sinking. This is no surprise, as it's girded by high-tension towers on all sides, a toxic landfill below, and the constant roar of low airplanes above. So you might think the Kerrigans would be ecstatic when, one day, they are informed that their home is being forcibly purchased by a government redevelopment agency to make room for airport expansion. The price is way more than the property is worth, but Darryl is incensed. This isn't just his house; it's his home, where he and Sal have happily raised a family. Even more to the point, it's his castle; he owns it, and it doesn't seem right that the government can force him to sell.
Together with his sad-sack neighbors and the world's most incompetent lawyer (Tiriel Mora), the energetic Darryl begins an assault on the legal system, by both sportsmanlike and harmlessly illicit means. You know how it's going to turn out.
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Since plot surprise isn't the issue here, the film's reason for being is its mild, easygoing humor. And that's where the problems begin. From the start, the Kerrigans are shown as slow-witted, deluded, tacky, and frankly pathetic. Close-ups of the brothers all seem designed to suggest the physical results of generations of inbreeding. It's hard to draw the line between gentle ribbing and simple insult, but regardless of their intentions, the makers of The Castle cross it. We're supposed to root for the Kerrigans, to see their abundance of goodwill and unconditional love. They are portrayed as good people. But at the same time, they are portrayed as morons. And, while idiocy is no sin, the bulk of the laughs in The Castle come at the family's expense.
The film takes many of its cues from Bill Forsythe's masterful Local Hero and such inferior, less big-hearted imitators as Waking Ned Devine. Like The Castle, Forsythe's film was full of amusing, working-class eccentrics, but it found ways to laugh at their quirks without even a whiff of condescension. Even more than Forsythe, Mike Leigh is a master at this in his lighter films: No matter how wacky the characters seem at first in Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies, they are revealed--without false idealizing or a blind eye to their faults--as complex human beings with virtues and vices.
The difference may well lie in The Castle's essentially cartoonish outlook. The film may support and admire its characters in some ways, but they never resemble real people: They are presented as caricatures who are fair game for ridicule. After all, they would be too stupid to be offended by our japes. We are invited to chuckle at the family's trashy taste, their simple-minded enthusiasm in the face of wretchedness, their joyous ignorance. This sort of comedy is dependent on a genuinely generous attitude toward its characters. If the makers of The Castle have such an attitude, it doesn't come through very clearly.
Directed by Rob Sitch. Written and conceived by Santauro Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, and Sitch. Starring Michael Caton, Anne Tenney, Stephen Curry, Tiriel Mora, and Anthony Simcoe. Opens Friday.