Crackerjack: the unfairly forgotten comedy that celebrated the great Aussie bowlo

Jack Simpson (Mick Molloy) has three memberships to Cityside Lawn Bowls Club but his interest in the vibrant bowling community begins and ends with the car park and its prime location in the middle of the city. The bowls club happens to be directly across the road from his middling telemarketing job, and he turns a tidy profit by selling the other two parking passes off to fellow commuters.

Simpson isn’t alone in his disinterest in the noble game of lawn bowls – with membership dwindling and a money-grubbing developer keen to fill the place with pokies, the club’s president decrees that all current members must become active bowls players to shore up the numbers. Simpson – unwilling to give up his prized parking spaces – suddenly finds himself donning whites each weekend and hitting the greens, as the club and its struggles slowly fill his life with a renewed sense of purpose.

Not exactly known for his theatrical range, Molloy basically plays an arrested rendition of himself in Crackerjack: a beer-sozzled knockabout who doesn’t take himself too seriously and his new role in the club’s bowls team even less so. Jack’s lackadaisical attitude irritates the locals – especially when he dares to make a sandwich out of the special cheese from the cheese wheel – although veteran Stan, played with perfection by Australian legend Bill Hunter, sees Simpson as a rough diamond to be polished.

Throw in the wonderfully sardonic Judith Lucy as Jack’s antagonist-turned-love interest Nancy, Samuel Johnson as his permabaked flatmate, and the late, great John Clarke as the evil developer who threatens to fill the place with pokies, and you have a warm, open-hearted Australian comedy that has been unfairly forgotten as the years have folded.

When released in late 2002, Crackerjack was a box office triumph (back when such a thing was possible without the actors donning lycra), earning $8.2m against a $3.5m budget – the most successful Australian film of the year. Written by Molloy and his brother Richard, and produced by their own Molloy Boy Productions, fans of any of this film’s spiritual cousins – The Dish, Frontline, The Late Show, The Castle – will find plenty to love here. While there is a distinctly blokey tone to the humour, as befits Molloy, Crackerjack has a surprisingly light touch, with themes like community spirit, gentrification and loneliness handled without sliding into overt pathos or easy sloganeering.

Crackerjack only betrays its age with its war against pokie machines: a quaint battle during these times of corruption hearings into major casinos. The problem of greedy publicans trying to shove poker machines into clubs and pubs while pushing out any remaining community or culture was a distinctly turn-of-the-century problem in Australia, as our country quickly gained the dubious distinction of having the most gaming machines per capita in the world. Eighteen months before Crackerjack hit cinemas, Tim Freedman scored his biggest single with an inelegant request to “blow up the pokies”; around that same time, Woolworths were beginning talks that would end up with them becoming the largest supplier of pokies to pubs in the country. The times were changing and watching Crackerjack now, it feels like the film knows it is chronicling the end of something important.

Of course, to call Crackerjack prophetic is easy with the benefit of hindsight. In truth, the march of the pokies is only the film’s Goliath, and quickly discarded. At its best, Crackerjack is a silly, pure-spirited celebration to the great Aussie “bowlo” – those fast-fading institutions where community is rife, the carpet came straight from the 1970s, and beer still sells for second world war prices.

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Crackerjack: the unfairly forgotten comedy that celebrated the great Aussie bowlo

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