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A review of "Malcolm" (1986)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Malcolm is a low-key comedy that focuses on a single unusual and irrepressible character and his interactions with a small group of people.  It's a terrific film that wins you over with charm rather than spectacle - the kind of feature that we would probably call "indie" or "quirky" today, but which was, at one point in time, the entire reason to make a movie.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Malcolm (Colin Friels) is a mechanical savant with an undefined mental and social impairment who works as a repairman for a public train in Melbourne.  He's an awkward and quiet guy who finds boundless joy in tinkering with and/or inventing machines.  He puts this hobby to an extreme test one morning by building his own miniature train out of spare parts and then riding it around the public rails.

(This sequence, by the way, is probably one of the best opening credits sequences I've ever seen.  It accomplishes so much with so little effort.  You get a perfect sense of Malcolm's character through his actions, the tone of music, the ridiculousness of his invention, and his enormous, goofy-ass grin as he rides around town - all of this without him saying a single word.  It's also a pretty good litmus test for how well you'll enjoy the rest of the movie; kind of a built-in mini-movie to tell you what you're in for.  More movies ought to follow this model.)

Unfortunately, his boss is less excited about his invention / joy ride, and Malcolm is fired almost immediately.  He returns alone to his house, which he inherited from his recently deceased mother, and proceeds to goof off with his pet bird and his various home-made inventions.

Malcolm quickly runs into money problems, as he is either not fit for or not aware of the need for employment.  A friendly clerk at the convenience store down the street helpfully suggests that he rent out a spare room in his house for income and guides Malcolm through a quick selection process.

Enter Frank (John Hargreaves): a gruff, borderline-drunk drifter and ex-convict who hears about the room and stumbles inadvertently into Malcolm's life.  Frank sees the room as a place to lay low and figure out his next move, but as an aimless wanderer, his next move seems to consist mainly of "inviting his girlfriend Judith (Lindy Davies) over to hang out."

For a little while, the movie just focuses on Malcolm getting to know Frank and Judith, his two new tenants.  But after Malcolm starts to pick up on the fact that Frank is reverting to a life of petty crime, he becomes fascinated with how to plan, execute, and reap the rewards of a robbery.  Malcolm's inventions take a decidedly darker turn as he tries to join in what he perceives to be a game.

Things come to a head when Frank and Judith realize what Malcolm is up to, and in the spirit of including those who are different, decide to bring him on board to plan the perfect heist.

This might sound like a dark comedy, but aside from a few grim scenes (notably Malcolm's failed date with a neighbor and a few violent outbursts from Frank), it's actually pretty light - the movie never judges Malcolm or really adds any terrible weight to his actions.  It's kind of odd, and definitely deserves a bit to talk about it.

The Bit Where I Ponder Criminal Behavior

One of the most interesting things about this movie is the way the criminal plot is so readily embraced by the protagonists.  It's both refreshing and disturbing.  Which makes me wonder if I'm missing something in translation.  Maybe Melbourne was a different place in the eighties.

In most movies (American ones, at least), a movie like this would have a few scenes showing you how Frank and Judith are on hard times and have no options.  Like maybe Frank would try to apply for a job as a dishwasher or some other low-level gig, but then some asshole Manager would snort and go, "I don't hire convicts.  Get outta here before I break your nose."  And then you see a scene or two of Frank struggling to go straight, but he's tempted to return to his old ways.

Or maybe you'd have a scene where Judith finds out her mom is losing her house, and she needs to find $25,000 in the next month to pay the bank.  Or some other kind of clock - something happens that makes you say, "Wow, what a shitty situation.  I sure hope these folks can find a solution to their money problems, but if not, I can understand why they'd resort to robbing a bank."

Or even if you're not doing that, you might at least go the Tower Heist route and show that the bank manager is a complete asshole.  Maybe you see a scene or two of him denying a loan to an orphanage, and then you cut to a funeral for one of the kids who died of exposure, and maybe that kid was Judith's friend's son, and she's inconsolable until Frank says, "Just you wait... we'll get him."

But, no.  None of that stuff happens.  The worst you see is that Judith loses her job, but at no point do either Judith or Frank really try all that hard at not being criminals.  They just kind of see Malcolm playing at a bank robbery like a game, and then they go, "Say.... that sounds like fun!  Sure, let's rob that bank."

The result is a kind of guilty pleasure.  It's a fun movie, but at the end of the day, the main characters are just straight up thieves.  No real admirable qualities here.  Other heist movies like Ocean's Eleven at least try to villainize their victims so you don't feel quite so bad when the scam is pulled off, or maybe they'll try to moralize like in Thief so you say to yourself, "This is fun and all, but stealing's still pretty bad."  Not in Malcolm.  Nope.

In Malcolm, a clever heist is its own reward.  Who cares if it's wrong as long as you have fun doing it?

And that's really where the movie shines.  Malcolm is such a disarmingly joyful character that you want to see him succeed at the robbery only because he's having such a great time with it.  His cheer is charming and contagious; his goofy grin when he realizes his talents are being put to use is one of the greatest parts of the movie.

Ultimately this is less a movie about a heist and more a movie about finding your place in the world.  Malcolm has no moral arc or conflict of character.  His journey is simply the emotional one of finding a place where he can be helpful.  Until the heist, he is a tool without a purpose, and by the movie's end, he's overjoyed simply to function.

Then again, I've never lived in Melbourne.  Maybe banks are even more prickish over there?

Where You Can Watch

Malcolm is streaming on Amazon Instant Video, and if you have Prime, you can watch it for free.