DIR/WRI: P.J. Hogan • PRO: Todd Fellman, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker • DOP: Donald McAlpine • ED: Jill Bilcock • CAST: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Deborah Mailman
A lot of people would consider the area of mental health as a minefield for comedy where one should tread carefully and lightly. On the other hand, P.J. Hogan charges gleefully across the same territory with heavy handed abandon, indiscriminatingly setting off politically incorrect bombs in his wake.
Perhaps Hogan’s irreverent attitude stems from the fact that he is apparently drawing on his own family’s history for this companion piece to Muriel’s Wedding. In one way, it’s commendable to tackle this potentially touchy-feely subject matter in such an aggressively brash manner. Unfortunately though, subtlety is the first and continual casualty of the incessant explosions of colour and volume that swamp any message in the material.
The film focuses on the sprawling Moochmore family comprised of five daughters, a Sound of Music-obsessed mother Shirley and a mainly absent dad. Acutely aware of their mum’s loon status within the local community, the girls are locked in a strangely competitive battle to self-diagnose themselves as crazy. When Shirley’s tenuous grip on reality slips, she is institutionalized leaving bad dad Barry (Anthony LaPaglia) desperate to find a child minder. His bizarre remedy is to pick up a random hitch-hiker Shaz (Toni Colette) and install her as a nanny for his moody brood.
In fairness, depicted with limited screen time LaPaglia’s patriarch is a truly despicable creation. Incapable of distinguishing his daughters by name, the damage of his deliberate on-going absence from the family home is only matched by the equivalent havoc inflicted by his rare appearances. In that context, it’s actually imaginable that he would consider it a good idea to put a homeless hippie with a switchblade in her boot in charge of his clan.
The re-union of Hogan with Toni Colette was probably crucial to this film securing funding. In turn Hogan’s clear desire to create a star turn for Colette unbalances the film. Sadly, Shaz is probably more fun to play than she is to watch. Her campaign to convince the Moochmore girls that they are sane and normal is intermittently touching but contains plenty of dud moments too. Hogan populates his vision of stifling suburbia with a gallery of grotesques and clichés who are only present as easy targets to rebel against.
The film works in fits and starts but rarely reaches critical mass as a comedy. The first hour is particularly fitful coming across like a high pitched Australian version of Shameless. The vast central cast vie for screen time leaving fringe characters feeling completely indistinct and redundant. Again, the audience’s threshold will be tested to the limit by the film’s unfocused climax. Frankly, there are endless endings as Hogan indulgently ignores ample opportunities to tie the film up. It’s like a broken toy that can’t be turned off – but an audience will be turned off.
While the film may be an uneven blend of shock therapy and wholesome homespun wisdom, anyone in the mood for a colourful and camp confection with plenty of bawdy humour will find Mental fits the bill.
Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Mental is released on 16th November 2012