Mental Review By Adam
I often bemoan the state of Australian film. Unfortunately, when it comes to our box office, so does the Australian public. Occasionally we get something that breaks through the drought of uninspiring films and reminds the public that we are capable of crafting entertaining cinema that still retains our Australian identity. Wayne Blair’s toe tapping The Sapphires is a perfect, recent example. A big reason that our films are avoided or outright disliked is that they often fit into two, admittedly, broad categories: the staid, boring drama or the ocker, cringeworthy comedy. Writer/director P.J. Hogan’s latest film, Mental, is the definition of the latter. A stunningly self-indulgent film that operates in a universe unrecognisable from our own, Mental is completely in-your-face. I’d have little problem with the aforementioned facts if Mental was pant-wettingly funny, but due to a mortifyingly miscalculated lead performance and haphazard writing, Mental is often as funny as a burning orphanage.
Set in the perpetually sunny Dolphin Heads, Mental tells the tale of the dysfunctional Moochmore clan. Lead by the whimsical Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), the female members of the family are a hotpot of real and self-diagnosed mental disorders. The outlandish behaviour of the girls infuriates the no-nonsense patriarch of the family — and local mayor — Barry Moochmore (Anthony Lapaglia). In a desperate attempt to regain normality, Barry ships Shirley off to a mental hospital — ‘Your mother is on holiday in Wollongong,’ he tells the girls — and recruits Shaz (Toni Collete), a knife-wielding, pot-smoking hitch-hiker to whip the girls into shape. While Shaz is adept at controlling the Moochmores and changing their perspectives, she is less successful at reconciling her own psychiatric problems.
Almost twenty years after 1994’s smash hit Muriel’s Wedding, director P.J. Hogan has come full circle. The years between Muriel and Mental have been a rollercoaster for Hogan. He has made star vehicles (My Best Friend’s Wedding), straight to video flops (Unconditional Love) and huge Hollywood blockbusters (Peter Pan), but Mental finds him back in established waters: a skewered version of Australian suburbia. Hogan’s garish aesthetic is completely take it or leave it. The film starts off indulgently — a twirling, morbidly obese Rebecca Gibney singing ‘The Sound of Music’ — and steadily accelerates from there — in one scene, the girls rub their menstruations on a neighbour’s white upholstery. If the start grates for you, get out while you can: it only gets worse. The effect of Mental’s tone is not unlike a low-frequency noise: the more unsubtle it is the more excruciating the experience. I didn’t have an automatic dislike for Mental. If anything, I (initially) thought it possessed an off-beat charm, but eventually its unfunny gags and schizophrenic plotting wore me down, and by the time Shaz had lit a fart like a flame thrower, I knew I was watching a dreadfully misconceived film.
The tonal inconsistencies of Mental can be directly attributed to Hogan’s confused screenplay. Hogan throws everything at the audience — romance, mystery, slapstick and drama — often with little consideration of what has come before it. The confusion also extends to his characters’ motivations. I imagine that some of these problems stem from the film’s autobiographical nature — Shaz is based on a character from Hogan’s childhood — and the fact that Hogan knows this story back-to-front. Unfortunately we, the audience, don’t, and he fails to convincingly convey it to us. For example, when Barry sees Shaz hitch-hiking on the side of the road, he has no idea who she is, yet he places her in charge of his children. A scene where he judges her character or even discusses the terms of her employment is completely absent; the entire film is full of these dramatic shortcuts. This film also features one of the worst breaks of continuity in recent cinema. After a scene of emotional resolution that sees Barry and Shaz completely reconciled, Barry turns on Shaz and chases her from his home. It is unbelievably jarring, as it makes zero dramatic sense and leads us to a chaotic and unsatisfying final act.
Mental’s scattershot approach means that it is not without its charms. The film gels when it focuses on the coming of age of Coral Moochmore (Lily Sullivan). Sullivan is a fine young actress and her scenes effectively capture the insecurities of adolescence. In fact, minus a few grating turns, the film is filled with fine performances. Rebecca Gibney gives a courageous (she gained 20 kgs for the role) and emotive performance as the tragic Moochmore matriarch, whileAnthony Lapaglia brings a fiery commitment as the perpetually frustrated Barry — his dismissive interactions with his girls are some of the film’s comedic highpoints. Liev Schreiber is one of my favourite actors and he is a hoot as the shark hunting, Crocodile Dundee-esque Trevor Blundell. He nails a flawless Australian accent and he is completely in tune with the film’s crazed sensibilities.
Your appreciation of Mental will most likely hinge on your stance on Toni Collette’s performance. For me, ‘Shaz’ was the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. While Mental is an undeniably over-the-top film, Collette’s performance makes her surroundings seems subtle by comparison. Collette is normally a strong actress but she can’t rise above this miscalculated, self-conscious, noxiously ocker characterisation. Shaz is meant to be an indelible character, and she is, but for all the wrong reasons. From her grating voice to her smug physicality, Collette’s Shaz gave me a serious case of ‘cultural cringe’. Her dime-store philosophy is the heart of Mental — everyone is mental, and normality is relative — but her obnoxious actions often rob her words of poignancy. All would be forgiven if Collette brought the funny, but even her most desperate attempts — lines like ‘I love you, cunt’ — fail to elicit grins, let alone belly laughs.
Mental is competently shot and its visuals often reflect the sunny disposition of its characters. For all of its tonal problems, the film cannot be accused of being lazy. Many sequences are brimming with energy and show a kooky inventiveness. The soundtrack alternates between songs from The Sound of Music and painful tunes reminiscent of Ben Lee’s over-earnest pap.
I have no doubt that some people will be in tune with Hogan’s sensibilities and find Mental a nostalgic riot. I, however, did not. While nowhere near as bad as recent Aussie comedy A Few Best Men, Mental is still a flaming mess. It has plenty of heart, but only a scattering of laughs, and, unfortunately, only one of these ingredients is truly important in a comedy.