The small-town-of-eccentrics genre is usually hit-or-miss -- or more frequently both hit and miss in the same picture. But just as frequently these movies are such a gas it's easy to forgive their foibles.
Such is the case with "The Dish," a tongue-in-cheek Aussie comedy about a real-life hamlet called Parkes and how it was put on the map in 1969 when the giant satellite dish located in a sheep pasture just outside of town became the Southern Hemisphere's relay station for the Apollo 11 moon landing.
The whole town is, of course, abuzz with excitement and nervous about putting its best foot forward when they hear that the prime minister and the American ambassador will be paying a visit. But most of the action takes place out at the dish, where a micromanaging NASA wonk (Patrick Warburton) with a narrow view of horseplay and an even narrower tie is hovering over the scientific trio that run the joint: the recently widowed and quietly reflective project director (Sam Neill), the smart-aleck technician (Kevin Harrington) and the sarcasm-impaired, nervous nerd mathematician (Tom Long).
Like its British genre brethren -- "The Full Monty," "Waking Ned Devine," etc. -- this down-under comedy o' quirk isn't so much about broad humor as it is about incidental wit, odd goings-on (the scientists play cricket inside the dish when they're bored) and idiosyncratic characters.
At the dish, there's the overly gung-ho security guard always reporting this "sector" and that "sector" secure on his walkie-talkie. There's also the guard's sugary, sweater-girl sister who brings snacks to the scientists hoping to catch the eye of the nerd -- who is, of course, pretty slow on the uptake.
The apprehensive mayor has a wife who corrects people's grammar at the most inopportune moments and an assistant who has no tact. "Sucking up to the bigwigs," he nods when the mayor announces the prime minister is coming. "That's what it's all about."
Then there's the boy next door, who is so itching to join the military he does his own inspection drills in the back yard. He has a crush on the mayor's militant feminist-liberal daughter and just can't get it through his thick skull why she's not interested. ("You're a brave lad, son," the mayor tells him.)
Amidst all this, director Rob Sitch ("The Castle") does an incredible vicarious job of bringing the excitement of the moon landing to life. He zeroes in on the faces of the dish crew as they listen to the transmissions passing through their equipment and not only can you see the awe on their faces, you sit there in the theater getting goosebumps when you hear Neil Armstrong's voice say "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." In fact, it's so effective, I just got goosebumps remembering the scene while typing that sentence.
Sitch also adds a lot of spirit to the movie with his selection of soundtrack songs. Some of them are your standard Greatest Hits of 1969 (Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" during a launch stock footage? How unoriginal.) But he also makes some refreshingly unexpected choices, including several tunes from Herb Albert's "Whipped Cream" album.
Occasionally the movie changes tone abruptly, like when the dish crew loses Apollo 11's signal, and suddenly the soundtrack swells like a tragic melodrama. But it always finds its way quickly back to the comedy. Moments later they have to scramble around and fake a transmission to keep up appearances because the U.S. ambassador drops by uninvited.
The filmmaking is pretty elementary and Sitch clearly didn't have a clue how to wrap up this fictionalized account of semi-true events because he opens and closes the film with pointless footage of Sam Neill in very bad old-age makeup visiting the dish in modern times.
But while such problems prevent "The Dish" from being an all-time comedy classic (which it truly could have been), they don't detract from the total enjoyment of watching this vivaciously funny film.