Love Mussel is a wide ranging parody whose targets include its own medium, television, and its star, Kevin Smith. He appears as himself, a celebrity actor, hired to front an investigative, ‘feel-good' documentary about a shellfish with Viagra-like properties. Ironies abound: take the title in relation to Smith's perceived swarthy reputation. As director Michael Hurst, in a cameo as a television executive, quips, "You'll take your shirt off, won't you?" From their roles in Hercules and Xena Warrior Princess both Smith and Hurst are regarded by fans as ‘hunks'. And, no he doesn't.
The only other ‘real-life' characters are Prime Minister Jenny Shipley and newsreader John Campbell. Shipley is the unwitting object of Smith's unbridled lust. He is ‘undone' by the sight of her on TV while sampling gooey duck, the musky mollusk. An unlikely coupling slyly fostered through the medium. Television is both the source and butt of the comedy.
Commissioned for a third series of one-hour Sunday dramas for TV, initiated by NZOA and the NZFC, this was originally written for an earlier series. Writer Stephen Sinclair and producer Sue Rogers proposed it as Sam Neill's dramatic directorial debut. Neill was also to play himself as the hapless documentary investigator. Whether his renowned modesty held him back is not known, but the project lapsed.
Sinclair's association with Peter Jackson - he co-wrote two of his more outrageous comedies (Braindead, Meet the Feebles) - suggests Forgotten Silver (1995) as a possible influence. Love Mussel does not pursue the mockumentary as far - it does not set out to be taken as fact - though Smith's persona complicates a conventional suspension of disbelief.
The satire runs in well worn tracks: Kiwi rustics, Maori sovereignty, masculine inadequacy, dominating women, town and country, and liberal recourse to penis jokes. Old jokes are invariably good jokes and The Listener cited it as one of the best comedy-dramas of 2001.
As the story gets blacker Smith's genitals are subjected to a form of electroshock aversion therapy applied by a doctor played by Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Smith's prospects for love are little better than when the two last paired in Desperate Remedies (Stewart Main, Peter Wells, 1994). Then Dorothea (Ward-Lealand) abandoned Lawrence (Smith) at the docks as she sailed away with her lover Anne.
Smith's gloomy prognosis is undercut by a clip in the credits, which ‘appears' to be an outtake. He laughs, mocking his painful reaction to the shock therapy and is joined by others giggling off set. This subversion of drama and documentary's claims to present ‘reality' reflects an achievement in Smith's performance.
In its political and social themes Love Mussel exposes masculine insecurity. From his producer onwards Smith is beset by women setting his agenda. In spite of his piratical and raffish good looks his hunk is at the mercy of others. Like an actor really. But Smith projects a charming vulnerability that avoids occupying either side of this comedy's gender divide. He turns the parody back on itself and makes the love mussel his own.
Directing Kevin was great. He would do anything. He was so polite and he would really want to get it properly. He would go hard and he would try anything if it would make the scene. If you watch the end titles of Love Mussel you will see him standing in a room under a microphone making little crying noises - short little girlie gasps of pain - and then cracking up.
This is because it was about two in the morning, we were all exhausted and I had asked him, for our sound mix, to make the sounds his character would make (he was playing himself) having electro therapy to his testicles. And Kevin stood there dutifully squealing at erratic intervals with total conviction for about three minutes until it was all just too funny.
You probably had to have been there.
That was the last time I worked with Kevin - Love Mussel. I think he is brilliant in it. Kevin had no fear of undermining his own image at all and so was just really funny being a kind of well-intentioned celebrity dickhead. Comedy came effortlessly to him, and if you can do comedy, then you can do tragedy. We had talked about other Shakespeare's - he really wanted to play Macbeth - and how fantastic it was that we were able to do what we do.
He was really happy.