Revisiting The Big Steal (1990): A Date with Joanna and the Jaguar

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| August 21, 2023

Serving as a time capsule of the late 1980s and early 1990s Australia while telling a fundamentally universal story, lead actors of The Big Steal, Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan, along with great support from Steve Bisley and Marshall Napier, elevate the film far above its admittedly generic bare-bones plot.

When the movie opens (refreshingly without long production logos), the camera pans over Danny Clark’s (Ben Mendelsohn) room, filled to the brim with Jaguar memorabilia. The narrator informs us that Danny only wants two things in his life: a Jaguar and a date with Joanna Johnson (Claudia Karvan), with the qualifier that neither seems likely at the moment.

This opening sets up the rest of the film succinctly and lets the film jump right into the real meat of the story. For his eighteenth birthday, Danny’s parents (Marshall Napier and Maggie King) are excited to pass on their beloved Nissan Cedric to him as his first car. Danny, his heart set on a Jaguar, isn’t quite as excited about the car and doesn’t try to hide it.

Danny finally musters up the courage to ask Joanna out with the oh so smooth clincher “I’ll pick you up in my new car… it’s a Jaguar”. Scrambling to find a Jaguar before his big date to prove he wasn’t lying, Danny is conned into trading in the Cedric by slimy car dealer Gordon Farkas (Steve Bisley).

Later, his big date seems to be going well until an ill-advised drag race leads to the car’s motor exploding and Joanna being covered in engine oil. Now, with a useless car and Joanna refusing to talk to him, Danny and his friends decide to get revenge on Farkas for selling him a lemon of a car.

You can smell the cheap cologne whenever Farkas is on screen.

First up, the acting in this movie is just top-notch, with every single actor making their role decidedly their own.

Mendelsohn and Karvan are exceptional in the lead roles, showing that they were clearly talented early on in their careers. Their chemistry isn’t electrifying, but it suits the story and the characters perfectly as high school students in love.

Danny’s parents are also exceptionally well-acted, with Napier and King complementing and bouncing off each other superbly.

However, the undeniable stand-out performance is Steve Bisley. He plays the role of the slimy second-hand car dealer so well, it’s as if the role was written just for him. The writing and dialogue by David Parker really makes the film. Parker takes the most mundane situations and injects them with humour and wit, making the scenes instantly quotable.

The best scene highlighting this is when Danny is test-driving the Jaguar, calling out the car’s faults with Gordon talking his way out of it like any dodgy car salesman worth his salt (brakes squealing because he swapped in the genuine brake pads). The character of Farkas and the group that works at the second-hand car lot are excellent, and anyone who has dealt with dodgy car salesman will get a chuckle out of their scenes.

With such strong writing, it would have been an absolute tragedy if the cinematography hadn’t been able to match it. Luckily, Parker pulls double duty as the cinematographer and really steps up to the plate. The shots in this film are stunning with simple camera movements and shots without a bunch of flashy cuts, so the focus remains on the stellar writing and performances.

This is complemented by the exceptional soundtrack, including tracks performed by the always awesome Mental As Anything. The composers for the film melded the music and shots expertly and should be commended on the care and love they’ve put into their work.

Yes, Australians really did have wallpaper like that back then.

One of the many, many stand-out scenes in this movie has to be when Danny first asks out Joanna. It’s shot and directed beautifully and written in a way that drew me in and helped me relate with Danny.

Mendelsohn’s acting in this scene was incredible. From the delayed responses to the subtle nervous ticks he has when talking to Joanna, it reminded me of my own high school experience and the many embarrassing conversations I had during that time (and many, many beyond that).

The only negative in this film for me was the character of Danny himself. The fact he sells the car his parents clearly love in exchange for a Jaguar and then doesn’t have to really face the consequences of his actions irked me a bit, but that’s a fault more with the genre, not solely on the film.

Even though Danny does self-reflect and realise that he really hurt his parents, the ending spiel by the narrator lets the audience know that what Danny did was okay because, in the end, his parents got their car back.

I understand that the movie is a comedy, and the feel-good tone would have clashed with a downer ending, but the way it is brushed aside is a little frustrating.

If you get a look like this during the date (Joanna or her dad’s), then you’re not likely getting a second date.

The basic teenage revenge plot in The Big Steal is a solid foundation that is built upon fantastic writing, cinematography, a stunning soundtrack, and career-defining performances from all involved. The universal story of the movie is wrapped up into an exceptionally well realised time capsule of city living in Australia at the beginning of the 90s.

A must-watch for anyone looking for a comforting movie packed with laughs or anyone who’s been done over by a less than reputable car salesperson.

Have you ever heard of this film? Are you going to watch it after this? What are your thoughts on Ben Mendelsohn in the MCU? Let me know down in the comments.

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