User Friendly (1990)


New Zealand. 1990.


Director – Gregor Nicholas, Screenplay – Gregor Nicholas, Norelle Scott & Frank Stark, Producers – Trevor Haysom & Frank Stark, Photography – Donald Duncan, Music – Mike Chunn, Production Design – Kirsten Shouler. Production Company – Film Konstruktion/NZ Film Commission


William Brandt (Billy Wyler), Alison Bruce (Augusta Dagar), Judith Gibson (Miranda Matlock), Joan Reid (Marjorie Ridland), Lewis Martin (Monty Hollingsworth), David Letch (Wayne), June Bishop (Doris Powlet), Noel Appleby (Barry), Belinda Weymouth (Laura)


Writer Billy Wyler receives a visit from his old girlfriend Augusta who wants his help picking up her belongings from where she has been staying with her employer Miranda Matlock. They break into Miranda’s home and get her things, while Augusta also steals a small statuette of a dog. They are unaware that the dog is an idol that comes from the South Pacific island of Tokabaru and supposedly has rejuvenative and aphrodisiac properties. A group of elderly people from a retirement home also break in wanting the idol. They, along with Miranda and her manservant pursue Billy and Augusta, determined to obtain the statuette and its mystic properties.

I was very impressed after seeing New Zealand director Gregor Nicholas’s debut film Drum/Sing (1985), a theatrically released short of a performance by From Scratch (a music group that only play using homemade instruments). It was one of the most stylishly assured pieces of filmmaking to emerge from New Zealand shores in some time and was subsequently acquired for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Gregor Nicholas made a number of other short films, including the acclaimed Coming of Age short Avondale Dogs (1994). On the basis of this, Nicholas seemed to have a promising career ahead. User Friendly was his feature-length debut. Nicholas followed this with the feature film Broken English (1996), an interracial love story, which was a modest hit at several international film festivals. Alas, Nicholas never subsequently capitalised on this acclaim and has made nothing since – these days he works as a commercials director.

Certainly, User Friendly disappoints on the promise that Gregor Nicholas’s earlier shorts showed. Even among the body of New Zealand cinema, which is so scarce that mediocre works can get inflated to classic status by local audiences, User Friendly was not granted a full theatrical release and was only relegated to a handful of local film festival screenings. It feels like a high-school pantomime attempt to mount an indie comedy. The bizarre and the giggly intermingle with often embarrassing results. Occasionally, Nicholas achieves some inspired heights – such as a sex scene that parodies 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with partners in spacesuits coupling as they move up and down on wires and harnesses to the accompaniment of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube. However, the film is never as funny as one keeps expecting it should be. Most of the eccentricities and bizarreness seem posed – it feels like Gregor Nicholas keeps throwing them up for us to applaud how quirky he is being. When they become tiresome, all that is left is the dogged chase plot and an overacting supporting cast.

Oh well, this is the sort of student film directors usually need to get out of their system at least once before moving onto greater things. It would be nice to see Gregor Nicholas return to feature-film making someday.

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