Hand on heart, I confess I like low buffoonery and kick-in-the-pants slapstick, so long as it is carried out with some panache. Directed by Tony Hiles (who co-wrote it with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh), the New Zealand feature Jack Brown, Genius has the buffoonery and the kicks in the pants all right. I’m not so sure about the panache.
It begins promisingly enough, with a premise which I can only assume is a deliberate parody of Vincent Ward’s The Navigator. You may remember that Ward’s poetic 1988 movie had medieval plague victims burrowing through the Earth and popping up in 20th-century New Zealand.
Jack Brown, Genius has a demented medieval monk (Stuart Devenie) taking over the brain of modern Wellington inventor Jack Brown (Tim Balme). He forces the luckless chap to try idiotic experiments in flight by flapping huge bird wings. Stained-glass icons and the odd spot of monkish endeavour sustain the parody.
So far, so funny, in a basic Three Stooges kind of way. The film’s matte work isn’t exactly state-of-the-art, but when Jack Brown takes flight over Wellington it’s impressive enough and there are some good crude sight-gags as spring-heeled boots run out of control and bounce Jack over the railway lines and into the central-city district. Tim Balme’s frantic, pop-eyed innocence suits his role as a human punch-bag.
Unfortunately, the film’s fitful comic invention is compromised by the dire clichés of its plot. Bad guys are after one of Jack’s inventions. In the midst of the slap stick, the comic villainess played by Lisa Chappell is an attempt at sexual sophistication so arch and mannered that it merely embarrasses. Minor members of the cast sing-song their way through dialogue often deadened by poor post-recording. Worst of all, there are too many instances where gags are sick without being especially funny.
It does genuinely have its moments and it is streets ahead of last year’s awful local turkey Chicken. But lumbered with this stuff, Jack Brown, Genius flies only in short hops.
North & South Review by Nicholas Reid - April 1997