Social Uniforms in Film: Danny Deckchair (2003)

still-of-miranda-otto-and-rhys-ifans-in-danny-deckchair-(2003)

Continuing my new series on social uniforms in film, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite feel-good movies, Danny Deckchair.

Inspired by the real-life figure of Lawnchair Larry, the film centers on Danny (Rhys Ifans), a construction worker in Sydney who is known for thinking up weird (stupid) ideas like a “human slingshot.” He dreams of flying to faraway places and camping out in the wild, but he doesn’t have any serious goals for himself. Trudy (Justine Clarke), his partner of several years, has recently worked her way up from being a secretary to a real estate agent, and her ambitions expand after she meets Sandy Upman (Rhys Muldoon), a local sports newscaster. It’s clear they have grown apart, and when Trudy calls off their planned vacation the two resort to passive-aggressive games to play out their growing resentment towards each other. At a barbecue with friends Danny decides to try out his latest idea: tie a host of oversized balloons to a deckchair and test if they’ll hold his weight. Turns out, they do, and he’s unceremoniously shot into the air without any supplies, then pulled into a storm before he crash-lands in Clarence, a small rural town in the northern part of the country. Given a cover story by the woman whose backyard he falls into (Glenda, played by Miranda Otto), Danny is quickly welcome by the townspeople, and finds himself blossoming in ways he never expected.

With an over-the-top premise, a lighthearted script, a quirky cast of characters, and a cute love story, Danny Deckchair fits easily into the romantic comedy mold, but it also functions as a kind of man-finding-himself story. When we first meet the title character, he is happy enough in his daily life, but there seems to be an underlying lack, a quiet dissatisfaction that he staves off once a year with a vacation. His accidental landing and week-long stay in Clarence open up a sea of possibilities for him: a place where no one knows who he is, and a group of people who have no idea what he is (or isn’t) capable of. Glenda gives him an impressive cover story, claiming he is an old professor of hers from college, and with that lie he receives immediate respect and personal interest, which intoxicates him. His social high leads him to spread his considerable energy throughout the town, becoming campaign manager for a local politician, inspiring a live-drawing art class, and encouraging the reserved Glenda to come out of her shell.

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Since he arrived with nothing but the weather-beaten clothes on his back, Danny is given a new wardrobe by Glenda. Both her parents are dead, and she lives in her childhood home, surrounded by all of their things. She lends Danny clothes that belonged to her father, most significantly a “suave” (and slightly over-sized) black suit for a town-wide dance they attend together. Putting on this suit, after also cutting his shaggy hair and shaving his beard, allows him to become a completely different person. He no longer presents as working class and unimportant (“one of the little people,” as Trudy terms it), but as a highly educated, put-together “professor” with ideas and opinions worth hearing. After the dance, he continues to wear the suit for most of his stay in Clarence, befitting his new status as campaign manager for loudmouthed wannabe politician “Big Jim” Craig (Anthony Phelan). He moves around the town meeting people, apparently charming everyone he speaks with (except Glenda’s jealous coworker), exuding confidence and goodwill. Gone are his feelings of inadequacy raised by the over-ambitious Trudy, gone is his restless wanderlust likely brought on by his unfulfilling job and the claustrophobia of a big city.

Glenda’s father is never named or spoken about in detail, but his absence (and that of her mother) is felt in her house through the set decoration and some scattered references in dialogue. Danny uncovers an old motorcycle sitting unused in her shed, and we learn that her parents were “original hippies, Easy Rider and all that,” who traveled extensively by bike in the 60s. When she was a child her father used to take her for rides in the country, unbeknownst to her mother. We know early on that Glenda is seen as something of a misanthrope within the town, preferring to be alone rather than join in community festivities. (Working as Clarence’s only traffic cop likely hasn’t won her any friends, either.) With Danny’s arrival, she gradually opens up, newly welcomed by the town that so readily welcomes him, and becoming an active participant in town life. The first man to come into her life in a meaningful way in a long time, Danny wears her father’s clothes, and later fixes her father’s motorcycle and encourages her to drive it, not so much literally standing in for him but clearly representing the joy and contentment that had left Glenda’s life with the death of her parents.

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As in Trust, that the social uniform in question belonged to a love interest’s parent increases its power as a symbol. With this suit (and haircut), Danny can immediately take on a totally different life, while also forging a deep connection to the person who gave it to him. He keeps it on even after he’s been discovered by Trudy (who has in his absence become closer to news anchor Sandy Upman, but soon sees Danny’s new-found fame for his bizarre stunt as appealing in her once ho-hum boyfriend), stunned into near-silence during his welcome-back party. The next day he goes back to work, back in his loose sleeveless shirt, ripped jeans, and work boots, and within minutes he realizes he truly does belong in Clarence, in Glenda’s home, and, of course, in that suit. Though I do hope he eventually buys a few of his own.

 

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