For a long time it looked as if film-makers couldn't make a romantic comedy if Cupid himself unloaded a quiverful of arrows into their butts. Thankfully, 1999 has already managed to deliver a clutch of plausible rom-coms (Shakespeare In Love, Forces Of Nature). But this is the first that harks back to the tradition of '40s romances, when the battle-between-the-sexes dialogue and interplay between the leads is what makes the movie.
Jack, of course, loves Ruby but, being a man, can't get beyond the mates stage for fear of humiliating himself. Ruby loves Jack but, being a woman, tries to let her head rule her heart and plumps for safe-bet Hamish (Gilbert), the local vet. So Jack and Ruby enjoy a relationship filled with friendly banter, which occasionally descends into more serious fights.
The Australian Outback setting is used effectively to illustrate the leads' working lives. Jack sees his life from the road as a rig-driver, while Ruby really comes alive when she takes to the air in her crop-dusting plane. They love their jobs and their Bush life: it's a close society where everyone knows everyone else, so any change to their relationship would be noticed immediately. Only when they reach the city, where the publicity machine for Jack/Ruby's books goes into overdrive, can they consider the logistics of their friendship. Ziggy's life, by contrast, is a whirl of business suits and art deco furniture. Yet she, too, has a softer side which quickly comes to focus on Jack.
Paperback Hero may suffer at the box office from its lack of stars: it's the kind of film that benefits from good word of mouth, and certainly deserves that. Writer/director Antony J Bowman wrings as much humour as possible out of the situation while keeping the reality intact, the characters are funny without being caricatures and the plot plays cleverly with the Mills&Boon staples that feature in Jack's writing.
In a summer when sci-fi blockbusters will dominate, this deserves to be a sleeper. Jackman is a hero loveable enough to satisfy anyone pining for more romantic box-office fare, making Paperback Hero the best Aussie movie since Muriel's Wedding.