Rhys Ifans came to the world's attention as Hugh Grant's roommate in "Notting Hill," a performance that packed so much splattery id onto the Welsh actor's long, thin frame that he seemed like an explosion in a coathanger factory. The prevailing view was that Ifans would be typecast as a nutjob, but the surprise is that he's starting to corner the market in moony romantics. He's the best thing in the upcoming "Vanity Fair" as the lovestruck Dobbin, and in the unfortunately titled "Danny Deckchair" he progresses from Ifans the gonzo eccentric to romantic Rhys, cleanshaven, eyes demurely downcast, and ready for a storklike tango under the stars.
The movie is a tiny thing, a good-hearted but wan Australian wacky-small-town romance of the sort pioneered by Frank Capra and perfected by movies like "Waking Ned Devine" and TV shows like "Northern Exposure." Ifans starts out looking like a human hairball as Danny Morgan, a Sydney cement mixer stuck in a rut. He's a dreamer with little use for personal grooming, and his longtime live-in girlfriend, an ambitious realtor named Trudy (Justine Clarke), is fed up.
When he gets wind of her flirtation with a local sportscaster (Rhys Muldoon, preening nicely), Danny throws himself with passive-aggressive fervor into his latest project -- finding out whether one can fly a lawn chair if enough helium balloons are attached. In other words, is it possible for a man to escape his own life by going straight up?
It is and he does, launched unexpectedly during a backyard party and coming down hundreds of miles away in the small upcountry hamlet of Clarence -- specifically, in a tree outside the house of the town's lovely, repressed parking cop, Glenda (Miranda Otto). After convincing the panicky Clarentians he's not an alien but rather a visiting professor of . . . something, Danny is embraced by the community, and no one bothers to inquire where he's from or whether he might have anything to do with the missing Sydney man who's all over the telly. Soon enough he's helping Glenda overhaul her classic motorcycle. Sadly, that's not a metaphor.
Not for nothing does the town share a name with the angel in Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." Clarence is a picturesque burg with colorful inhabitants, including precisely one gay man (thus filling the wacky-small-town demographic quota). Danny innocently helps a corrupt bigshot (Anthony Phelan) run for office, but the movie's populism is such that he himself is giving rousing speeches about civic pride by the end.
The romance with Glenda, meanwhile, progresses in fits and starts, and it works only because Ifans and Otto bring every bit of their skill and charm to bear -- it's especially nice to see the actress let her hair down after hours pining for Viggo Mortensen in "The Lord of the Rings" (she was Eowyn, high hoohah of Rohan).
Written and directed by Jeff Balsmeyer, making his debut behind the camera, "Danny Deckchair" is what you might call conditional whimsy, predicated on the audience overlooking so many plot implausibilities that it might get tuckered out from all the charity. In the end, it's Ifans's show, and he brings a dazed courtliness to it that's quite winning, not to mention an Australian accent I'm not qualified to judge.
The movie is a visit to Oz in more ways than one.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.