Three Dollars: book, film, commodity

Jake Wilson

David Wenham, Three Dollars

David Wenham, Three Dollars

Young love in Melbourne. Boy meets girl in the supermarket checkout queue–or in a movie, at a record store. He’s “struck by the recalcitrant beauty in what Durkheim would call her ‘anomie’”. She asks him “What’s the difference between a commodity and something else?” Soon enough they’re hanging out on campus and arguing about Shakespeare and feminism; after graduation, he gets a job at the Federal Environment Office, while she tutors in politics and tries to think up a sexy topic for her thesis. Before they know it they’re equipped with a child and a mortgage, fretting about their incipient conservatism and counting their pennies.

If the joke seems facile, that might be part of the point. The intended wit of Elliot Perlman’s 1998 novel Three Dollars depends on a circular irony that mocks its own tendency to classify and label: Eddie and Tanya Harnovey are self-conscious intellectuals who wryly observe themselves in the act of running true to type. What’s less clear is how far these soft-left yuppies differ from the book’s more immediate satirical targets, the apostles of economic rationalism with their unreal calculations of profit and loss. The will to abstraction is almost equally evident on both sides, but while Eddie is allowed his lapses, he’s also held up to the reader as a decent bloke doing his best: a representative of the truly human.

The problem is ‘humanity’ remains just another abstraction: the more Perlman insists on Eddie and Tanya as recognisable and sympathetic characters, the more he robs them of the complexity that might make them so. Too often Eddie’s voice has the sanctimony of any consciously noble narrator (“Perhaps people like me would not survive…Would all those who could not take even the smallest pleasure from inflicting pain die out?”). So immediately, there’s one reason why the film of Three Dollars, directed by Robert Connelly, might improve on the book: where Perlman traffics largely in received ideas, Connelly can call on concrete faces and voices to bring these ‘human’ values to life.

Certainly, the lead roles are ideally cast. Francis O’Connor has the quasi-neurotic charisma required for Tanya, and her forthright manner lets her convey the character’s earnestness without looking silly. On the other hand, David Wenham as Eddie is (thankfully) a different animal to his priggish literary counterpart: a subtler ironist than Perlman, Wenham is able to get laughs from some of the book’s worst lines by making them sound like distracted ad-libs by a man at the end of his tether. Where Perlman’s Eddie rarely misses a chance to show off his mental equipment, the keynote of Wenham’s acting is a casual miming of naivety, updating an archetype that runs deep in Australian culture: while Tanya sounds off about women’s rights, he slouches against the university library shelves with his hands in his pockets, looking every inch the country cousin.

By comparison with Hollywood smart-arses from Bogart to Bill Murray, David Wenham’s irony is superficially unthreatening, a defensive stance that highlights his potential vulnerability. Beneath the clowning his screen characters tend to be emotionally reticent, though it’s not always clear what emotions are being repressed. Both this film and Connelly’s earlier The Bank (2001) have a touch of Frank Capra, with Wenham cast each time as the ordinary man who goes up against the system. But where Capra was more than able to show the dark side of the American Dream, Wenham is yet to find a movie role that fuses the folksy side of his persona with the capacity for sociopathic rage he displayed in The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998).

In fact it’s Tanya rather than Eddie who comes closest to Jimmy Stewart’s crack-up in It’s a Wonderful Life (1948) though nowhere in Three Dollars is there the kind of dramatic crux that might reveal the limits of a complacent liberal world view. When Eddie is effectively forced to choose between his principles and the welfare of his child, it seems inevitable that his faith in himself as a decent human being will be threatened if not destroyed. Yet after a couple of unconvincing feelgood gestures the story simply peters out. As a result, the film’s political message amounts to little more than a generalised plea for compassion, with Eddie and Tanya seen as victims of a largely faceless system rather than agents with responsibility for themselves or others.

Again, there’s a failure of concrete imagination, at least when the film tries to picture anything beyond its central characters. Robert Menzies’ mumbling prole is an embarrassingly stereotyped representative of the underclass, while visually Connelly does little to repair the want of sensuous detail in Perlman’s prose. For the most part, the domestic scenes are staged in an inert, vaguely theatrical manner, the kitchen bench or living-room table used as a proscenium arch behind which the actors move back and forth. Though Connelly takes the opportunity for striking long shots when Eddie heads out to the countryside, in the city he seems unable to place his hero in a wider visual or social context: his use of flashbacks, home movies and dream sequences reinforces the book’s limited first-person perspective, with Wenham’s voiceover steering us through Eddie’s biography as if through a narrow tunnel.

“This is how healthy people feel in unhealthy times.” The line is rousing but paradoxical, since it depends exactly on the split between the personal and the social that Connelly and Perlman would presumably oppose. Moreover, there are hints that the Harnoveys have been less than entirely healthy from the outset: Tanya’s anomie has no simple cause, nor can economic deregulation be wholly blamed for Eddie’s shadowy fears of impotence and death. Children, rational argument, the songs of Joy Division: these fragments we have shored against our ruin. What’s the difference between a commodity and something else? Trapped in self-reference, the nominal leftism of both versions of Three Dollars is finally closer to a solipsism that finds its emotional justification in its own defeat: as if some of the unhealth of the times had rubbed off not only on the people, but the artworks as well.

Three Dollars, director Robert Connelly; writers Robert Connolly, Elliot Perlman; Producer John Maynard; Arenafilm

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 21

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005