Based on Barry Oakley's popular 1970 novel, The Great McCarthy is a satire concerning not only Australia's obsession with sport but also the perception that city folk are amoral, corporate, and greedy, while their country brethren are virtuous, innocent, but somewhat slow witted. As comedy, The Great McCarthy is a pastiche of styles suspended somewhere between Alvin Purple and Barry McKenzie, while the concept of the hero as a recessive figure, acted upon rather than acting, is reminiscent of other Australian films of the 1970s, such as Between Wars.
The storyline revolves around McCarthy, a country lad with tremendous football talent, who is pursued by a number of first-grade Victorian Football League (VFL) clubs, to the dismay of the townsfolk with whom he grew up. McCarthy is abducted and brought to Melbourne to play for a team run by Colonel Ball-Miller, who also puts McCarthy to work in his insurance company. But the young footballer finds more to life after he embarks on a series of affairs with a secretary, a night-school teacher, and the colonel's daughter.