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Monday, 2 December 1996

Dating the Enemy

About the only thing that all the successful Australian films of the last decade or so have in common with each other is that they've been the type of thing you can't get anywhere else. Hollywood wasn't making Strictly Ballroom-style films, nor were they going for the Muriel's Wedding market, and the one they did make for the Priscilla crowd (remember Too Wong Foo...) sank without a trace. Some say cultural cringe, others say the Americans are just too good at movie-making for us to compete directly, but for whatever reason, local films that go head-to-head with what Hollywood does best usually end up being joked about on comedy shows before the week is out. Which is why you've got to admire the bravery of those behind Dating the Enemy, because a romantic comedy about a couple who swap bodies - yep, it's that old Freaky Friday deal again - is not exactly breaking new ground in any direction, no matter how charming and funny it might turn out to be.

Tash (Claudia Karvan) is a mousey science journalist, Brett (Guy Pearce) is a straight-forward music reporter, and if you don't think opposites attract then you need to go to the movies more often. Problem is, by their first year anniversary (which, romantically enough, is on Valentine's day), Brett has found himself a high-profile job hosting a music show that's turned him into a red shirt wearing geek with an ego inflated to twice normal size, and now they're so opposite it looks like their relationship is coming apart. But after a full moon and some fizzy special effects, they wake up in each others bodies - he's a she, she's a he, and they're both about to get a pretty good look at how the other half lives.

Films like this live or die by how well they can persuade you that the two central characters actually have swapped bodies, and on this score at least this film has little to worry about. Pre-swap, Karvan and Pearce exaggerate their characters respective natures - she's really shy and quiet, he's a total extrovert - to such a cartoony extent it's almost annoying, but after the change they're both pretty convincing as each other, and by the end they've actually made the premise of this seem almost natural. The gender-swap jokes fly thick and fast after a fairly slow opening, with plenty of self-fondling and surprise revelations, but even with a pretty strong set of laughs this gets a bit aimless around the middle before heading off to an ending that's about as surprising as a light coming on after you hit the switch.

So again it falls on the actors to carry the film, and fortunately both Pearce and Karvan have charm enough to bring this off despite a few rough spots. Pearce might be a smarmy pain as Brett, but as Tash he's both sympathetic and believable, while Karvan also shines once she's playing the opposite gender, giving a swaggering, confident performance that's fun to watch. It's almost disappointing when they have to change back (yeah, like there was a chance they wouldn't), because despite the creaky, worn-out concept, seeing these two act like each other is really what makes this worthwhile.

This may be no better than your usual American romantic comedy but it's easily no worse, so for once supporting the local product may not seem like as big a chore as usual. For the romantically inclined this is worth checking out because it's date film written all over it, but otherwise - despite some very enjoyable performances - this doesn't really make that much of an impact either way.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#121)