There was Astro Turf passed off as “green carpet”, a pair of race horses milling on the side of the road, photographers, journos and TV presenters hovering like flies, men with greasy hair in pinstripe suits and streams of what one punter described with a spit of vitriol as “a butcher shop of mutton dressed as lamb.”

Inside a steady flow of wine and champagne was served to the 1000 odd guests by young cinema employees clearly more accustomed to retrieving choc tops, filling buckets of popcorn and making chit-chat to old ladies about seat allocation on Tight Arse Tuesday. “Slow pour and tilt, tilt!” I instructed the young pimple-studded man seconds before the bubbly poured like lava onto the table and he handed me the wet glass with a pitiful apologetic look, as if to say “I ain’t cut out for this gig, but don’t tell the boss.”

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The director, cast, crew, their neighbours and the third cousin of the guy who made a cup of tea one time for the second stand-by costume assistant were all there hobnobbing with the crowd, along with many of the people — including jockey Damien Oliver — whose lives were about to be projected through a thick sugary veneer on large screens in front of tipsy audiences.

The Aussie premiere of The Cup tried very hard to be an Event, in the manner of a lonely person putting on a dinner party desperate to make it work, and an Event it was. Celebs who weren’t stars of the film were few and few between and despite the lack of canapes and finger food (responsible alcohol serving #101 — you gotta provide some chow) it was a swanky soiree and everything went off without a hitch.

Until the film started.

Fortunately, distributor Village Roadshow chose not to market The Cup as the last film of Australian acting legend Bill Hunter (which it is), though they would have if they thought they could’ve got away with it.

Hunter plays horse trainer Bart Cummings in a walk-on role if ever there was one; a quick glance and bang — the man with the beard and the no-nonsense countenance and the backlog of thousands of liquid lunches and chicken parmas is, sadly, horribly, gone for good, and he didn’t even have a pot of beer in his hand as he walked out of our celluloid visions forever.

The film tells the kind of story that would generate howls of critical indignation (“pffft. That is so cliché”) were it not for the inconvenient fact that, in broad strokes at least, it actually happened.

In the lead-up to the 2002 Melbourne Cup — an event boasting a PR team that somehow successfully spun the preposterous line that it “stops the nation” — a tragic horse racing accident claimed the life of Damien Oliver’s brother Jason (played by Daniel “Dancing With the Stars” MacPherson). Damien (Stephen Curry) decides to honor his late bro by…riding a horse. He rides it, as we know from history, all the way across the finishing line and takes home the Cup in a flurry of freeze frame glory.

Those unfamiliar with the whys and wherefores of horse racing will be surprised to learn that the actual cup is evidently made of double brie, tasty cheddar, bocconcini, haloumi, mozzarella and, to give it structure, rock hard romano  — in other words a cheese-a-rific trophy that Damien — the character, not the man — can call his own. The Cup is nothing if not cheesy.

In fact, it plays like a lonely widowed grandmother who dusts off a hefty photo album and proceeds to turn the pages and point at pictures while waffling on about somebody she used to know and some place she went one time. Your eyes begin to glaze over and you become desperate for a shot of anything alcoholic — even if you don’t drink — but all she has is tea and tang.

None of the actors get their game on. Curry projects the boyish innocence and nice guy naivety to make the good-bloke-doin’-his-best part of the role work, but there is no grimness in his character’s determination and therefore little sense of the emotional weight the real man would have inevitably felt. Shaun Micallef has a small thankless part as a trainer who, instead of training, masters the art of looking smug and vaguely disinterested, balancing whatever dramatic weight his character has (which isn’t much) on top of his eyebrows.

Director Simon Wincer, who also co-wrote the screenplay, was not the right person to avoid certain temptations, like dunking the audience’s noggins into a honey pot of clichés, shabbily constructed interpersonal relationships and cringe-worth dialogue. Certainly he does not have the chops needed to connect the emotional resonance, or lack thereof, of The Cup with something truly Serious — i.e. the tragedies of the Bali bombing, which occurred only weeks prior to the event and which is clumsily alluded to. Wincer’s half-hearted attempt to link them flops like a soggy pancake. The (generous) critics who enjoyed The Cup, if there are any, may tout the film as one that stems from the genius director behind Phar Lap and executive producer of The Man from Snowy River.

Oh yeah. He also directed Free Willy, Lightning Jack, Operation Dumbo Drop, The Phantom and — who could forget? — Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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