With his jet-black toupee, royal blue silk shirt and Tom Jones swivel, the cabaret singer crescendoes to a giddy high: "To reach that unreachable star!" Then the crooner's rendition of Impossible Dream cuts to something more banal: the washed-out daze of clubland; the blink of poker machines and clatter of meal trays. So begins Walk the Talk, a film where lurid fantasies quickly fade to grim realities.
Australian writer-directors don't come much edgier than Shirley Barrett. Her Caméra d'Or-winning Love Serenade (1996), about two Murray River sisters vying for the affections of a middle-aged disc jockey who might be a fish, was a memorable mix of small-town ennui and comic daydream, sweetness and sting. Walk the Talk, her follow-up feature, treads a similarly fine line between pleasure and pain. Shot in the same deadpan style, its sights are larger and less focused: Christian revivalism, motivational seminars, small-time crime. It's about the lengths to which people go to make dream a reality on Queensland's Gold Coast.
Like a fallen Faith Hill, single mother Nikki Raye (Nikki Bennett) has seen her cabaret career evaporate like the water in her empty condo pool. For self-help svengali Joey Grasso (Salvatore Coco), she is an empty vessel he can steer to stardom. "I feel like the guy must have felt when he discovered the Bee Gees," he tells a record producer. In fact, Nikki can't sing half as well as Joey's crippled girlfriend Bonita (Sacha Horler), whose accident payout bankrolls his budding talent agency, a flamingo-pink shrine to sole client Nikki. Confined to a wheelchair, Bonita imagines walking down the wedding aisle with Joey; counting the steps to 36.
Impossible dreams? In Walk the Talk, everyone but the protagonists realizes their mission is doomed. As she demonstrated in Love Serenade, Barrett knows that the bigger the delusion, the more vulnerable and touching her characters become. The casting is unerring: with her slow, flat delivery and heavy-lidded eyes, Bennett seems to have stepped straight out of a daytime soap; Coco has the soulful eyes of a silent-era clown, while Horler's rendition of Walking on Sunshine provides the film's sharpest moment. It's among three or four comic set pieces that can make you laugh, cry and wince in quick succession.
It's a delicate balance, and toward the end Walk the Talk wobbles and loses its footing. Desperate to generate some publicity for his lackluster star, Joey fakes Nikki's abduction and has her holed up in a high-rise flat. Unsure whether to play this as comedy or tragedy, Barrett comes up with a denouement as half-hearted as Joey's $50,000 ransom demand. "I'm going home, this is ridiculous," Nikki tells her kidnapper. An audience might say the same thing. With characters not allowed to act, only aspire, the film becomes caught in the stasis of its own sadness. That may be the whole point of Walk the Talk, but we're left wanting it to reach for the stars.