Film Review: Mental

Almost 20 years after <i>Muriel&#8217;s Wedding</i>, PJ Hogan and Toni Colette reunite for a kooky comedy in which a spirited cast is almost suffocated by too-aggressive direction.

Well, it’s not like the title didn’t warn us. Mental, the first collaboration between eternally underrated Aussie actress Toni Collette and writer-director PJ Hogan (who had his once-promising Hollywood career cut short after his hugely enjoyable and hugely expensive live-action Peter Pan did an unfortunate box-office belly flop) since Muriel’s Wedding became an international hit in 1994, is a big ol’ blast of crazy. From the opening frames in which a desperate housewife bursts into a rousing backyard rendition of the title track from The Sound of Music—complete with swooping camerawork—to the final scene in which a character uses their own…um, natural gas to set a roomful of creepy life-size child dolls on fire, the movie’s brand of comedy is aggressively broad, both in terms of its visual style (lots of Dutch angles and unflattering close-ups) as well as the performances.

Truth be told, it could all prove to be too much for some viewers, who may feel the urge to bail after the first 15 minutes when Mental is at its most shrill. And it would be hard to blame them, since the setup is rather squirm-inducing. Remember that wannabe Maria who appears in the first scene? Well, her real name is Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) and her unsolvable problem is that she’s married to an ambitious politician (Anthony LaPaglia) whose career and personal interests (i.e., chasing tail) mean he’s rarely, if ever, home. She, on the other hand, seldom leaves their suburban domicile, which also houses their five rambunctious daughters, none of whom could ever be described as “normal.”

Take the eldest, Coral (Lily Sullivan), who has a habit of diagnosing her supposed mental problems via Internet quizzes. And then there’s Michelle (Malorie O’Neill), who has regular nightmares in which aliens burst into her room demanding the return of a lost item. None of them are at the age where they’re eager to listen to what their mother has to say, so, trapped in a house all day with no one to talk to, it’s understandable that Shirley would start to go a little bit mad. Inevitably, she winds up going well past “a little” and her husband Barry is forced to commit her to a mental institution. Since there’s no way in hell he’s going to stay home and supervise their daughters, he’s on the lookout for a suitable—actually, make that available—nanny to pick up the slack.

It’s here that Collette finally enters the picture (and thank goodness she does) as Shaz, a demented Mary Poppins who Barry literally picks up off the street. Armed with a take-no-guff attitude, a nasty-tempered dog and a hunting knife hidden in her boot, she quickly whips the children into shape by encouraging them to embrace their inner weirdoes. Soon, they’re all carrying themselves with more confidence, particularly Coral, whose new attitude catches the attention of the studly surfer dude who works at the water park where she has a day job running the cheesy shark exhibit that bears the name of Crocodile Hunter-like adventurer Trevor Blundell (Liev Schreiber, channeling Robert Shaw’s immortal Quint through a pitch-perfect Australian brogue). Shaz even manages to make a new woman out of Shirley as well, one who’s confident enough to serve Barry with his walking papers.

But with every rise must come a fall, and so it emerges that there’s a great tragedy lurking in Shaz’s past—one that also involves Trevor—that pushed her beyond the borders of sanity. Suddenly, she no longer seems like someone to emulate but, rather, someone to feel sorry for.

Although she works steadily on this side of the Pacific, Hollywood never knew quite what to make of Collette, who possesses a zany screwball spirit that’s out of fashion right now in most studio comedies. (She did eventually find a great showcase on the Showtime series “The United States of Tara,” as a woman with multiple personality disorder, a role that allowed her to demonstrate her formidable comic range.) Hogan, on the other hand, understands precisely what she’s about and gives her the room to modulate her performance, not to mention the tone of a given scene. It’s an amount of leeway that he doesn’t necessarily grant to the rest of the cast, who are primarily playing to type and to the director’s camera, which is consistently positioned in a way to make everything and everyone appear bigger, louder and crazier. Fortunately, most of the actors are able to remain appealing (particularly Sullivan and Schreiber, who, between this and his scene-stealing turn in last year’s terrific hockey comedy Goon, is establishing himself as a superb comic actor on par with bigger names like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell) despite Hogan’s overwrought direction.

While Mental confirms that it’s crazy that Collette doesn’t get more leading roles, the movie itself isn’t as insanely inspired as Hogan seems to think it is.