When am I going to learn not to judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its title, or by what I think is its premise? I almost passed on watching “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee.” The title is too long and formal. And I was led to believe that it was a comedy about the Australian actor Paul Hogan, who starred in “Crocodile Dundee” (1986) and its two sequels, still struggling with the idea that, after all these years, people associate him only with that role.
But I did see it. I still think it’s a lousy title, and the above description is exactly the plotline. And to my pleasant surprise, I had as much fun watching it as Hogan obviously had making it.
In order to whet your appetite, here are a few things the film’s got going for it: Paul Hogan as Paul Hogan, reacting good-naturedly to all sorts of “bad” things happening to him; Olivia Newton-John; a car chase; Chevy Chase; John Cleese; and a full-blown song and dance number titled “That’s Not a Knife.”
Aside from numerous, well-placed comedic “Crocodile Dundee” references (many about knives), there’s also, for no discernible reason, one from “Animal House.” Picture John Belushi, in his toga, walking down a flight of steps, pausing to listen to Stephen Bishop singing and playing the syrupy 15th century ballad “The Riddle Song.” You know what happens next. In “Mr. Dundee,” the actor playing Hogan’s son Chase (Jacob Elordi), sitting by a pool, performs the same song, and makes it all the way through the first verse without anyone smashing his guitar!
Paul Hogan was a popular actor in Australia before hitting the big time as the charming guide-poacher in “Crocodile Dundee,” which he co-wrote and which was Oscar nominated for Best Screenplay. It made scads of money, as did, to a lesser degree, its sequel. But the second sequel flopped, as did his follow-up films “Lightning Jack” and “Flipper.” Hogan quietly disappeared from mainstream movies, popping up in recent years in little-seen features by Aussie director Dean Murphy.
“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” is silly and goofy and absurd, yet if you just roll with its cheerful attitude, it works. Hogan plays a fictionalized version of himself, a happy, laid-back fellow who made enough money in the movies to live quite comfortably, and misses nothing about the grind of the business. He lives in L.A., has a manager (Rachael Carpani) just in case there’s some work, and, at age 80, is still recognized as that long-ago character.
Three things happen at once. First, a movie studio, crowded with dumbbell executives, wants him to star in a third Dundee film, unaware that there already are three, and they want to hire Will Smith to play his son. “But that doesn’t make sense,” he calmly replies. Which leads to the second thing: He’s labeled a racist, and the story is picked up and exploited by every TV talk show imaginable. He shrugs it off, and moves on. The third thing is that the Queen of England wants to knight him for his contributions to comedy. Hold on, can a racist be knighted? But he’s not a racist.
A pattern begins, placing hapless Hogan in a series of wrong place-wrong-time spots, one involving a nun, another with some awful little kids. It’s a string of small errors and little accidents, with the press always around to make them look worse.
To spice things up, Hogan, still shrugging off the bad press, keeps bumping into old pals. Sure, he’d be happy to do a favor for chirpy Olivia Newton-John; of course he’ll have lunch with self-important Chevy Chase; and there’s John Cleese as his reckless Uber driver. There’s also a strange and excitable paparazzo wannabe (Nate Torrence) hiding outside of his house.
Does all of this come together and add up to anything? Yes, it does, on both counts. It’s relentlessly silly in its gentle slams at celebrity and the industry that’s been built up around it. But don’t forget, it’s also got that big musical number about a big knife!
“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” premieres digitally and On Demand on Dec. 11.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee”
Written by Dean Murphy and Robert Mond; directed by Dean Murphy
With Paul Hogan, Rachael Carpani, Olivia Newton-John, John Cleese, Wayne Knight, Chevy Chase, Nate Torrence