It is difficult to describe the Australian comedy Kenny without giving away a crucial bit of information, which is that even though the film looks and feels like a documentary, it is not. But as far as mockumentaries go, Kenny ranks among the very best, and if it weren't for the credits at the end, revealing that Kenny Smyth was played by Shane Jacobson, it would be easy to believe that this was an intimate portrait of a working class hero drowning in crap--literally.
Jacobson stars as Kenny, a divorced father who works for Splashdown, a company that supplies portable bathrooms to everything from corporate events to county fairs. Anywhere that needs portable toilets in the Melbourne area, Kenny is there to service them, mopping up the messes and unplugging the clogged pipes. He explains his job by saying, "It takes a certain kind of person to do what I do. No-one's ever impressed; no-one's ever fascinated. If you're a fireman, all the kids will want to jump on the back of the truck and follow you to a fire. There's going to be no kids willing to do that with me. So, I don't do it to impress people--it's a job, it's my trade, and I actually think I'm pretty good at it."
But Kenny is not nearly as simple as he makes himself sound. He spends most of his time working long hours and literally in toilets dealing with other people's shit, while the rest of his life seems to be in something of a toilet as well. His ex-wife can't stand him, and can't control their son, while his demanding father can do nothing but belittle Kenny. Meanwhile, he is just trying to get through life and deal with the stress of his job. Everything seems to pushing him to the breaking point, from conflicts with his co-workers to people who look down on him because of his job, and yet he still perseveres. When his boss sends him to an international convention for portable toilets, Kenny takes his first trip away from Australia, ending up in Nashville, where circumstances will place him in a dare-to-be-great situation.
Co-written by Shane and brother Clayton who also directs, Kenny is hands down one of the best, funniest and well executed films in recent memory. As a mockumentary it is nearly flawless, never once giving itself away as the work of fiction that it is. Everything from the writing to the acting to the rough, handheld photography lends itself to the illusion that this is a true documentary, coming across more real and authentic than films like Grizzly Man or American Movie, which at times seem far more ridiculous and implausible than Kenny ever does. And as far as mockumentaries go, Kenny ranks among the best.
Even if Kenny were to hold back on the documentary angle, and present itself as more of a conventional narrative, the film would still work, coming across like a Ken Loach film with a sharp sense of humor. But by crafting it in the guise of a documentary, and then successfully pulling off the hoax, the Jacobson Brothers have created a movie that works on multiple levels. The film is compelling and entertaining, and Shane Jacobson's performance grounds the entire experience in such a state of presumed reality that the audience can't help but want to see Kenny the person--not Jacobson the actor--find a bit of happiness in his life.
A huge hit in Australia, where it won numerous awards, Kenny suffered from a poor theatrical release in the United States. The result is a film that has gone largely unnoticed, when it deserves to be discovered by a larger audience. American audiences probably didn't know what to make of the film, thinking that it was a real documentary about a guy who services portable toilets (and anyone who left before the final credits rolled would never know otherwise). But the fact of the matter is that Kenny is as good as Christopher Guest's fake documentaries, and more convincing in its authenticity. This is one of those rare cinematic treats that brings with it a sense of true discovery that makes you want to tell all of your friends, "Watch this movie."