Stars: Toni Collette, Rebecca Gibney, Anthony La Paglia, Liev Shrieber, Caroline Goodall, Deborah Mailman, Kerry Fox, Lilly Sullivan, Betheny Whitmore, Sam Clark and Nicole Freeman.
Writer/Director: P. J. Hogan
It is impossible not to feel some love for Mental, a coarse, colourful comedy that marks director PJ Hogan’s return to the raucous suburban milieu he captured so memorably in Muriel’s Wedding. That said, it sure is hard too sometimes.
Leading lady Toni Collette and a gaudy seaside enclave peopled by eccentric denizens are just two of the instantly familiar elements in a film that reworks ever so slightly just about every memorable aspect of the 1994 hit. Mental is guaranteed to satiate anyone still pining for the sequel to Muriel’s Wedding that oddly failed to eventuate in the wake of its success (full disclosure – liked but never loved it).
The freedom afforded Hogan upon agreeing to seek a second cinematic lightning-strike has proved a double-edged sword. This is clearly an aesthetic that he adores, but the unbridled joie de vivre he specialises in has also resulted in a deeply indulgent, wildly unwieldy film that ultimately feels as schizophrenic as several of his characters.
The haphazard plot begins with the inevitable breakdown of Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney), the deluded soon-to-be ex-wife of the town’s sleazy mayor, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia). Their four daughters are largely raising themselves, led by Coral (a fine Lily Sullivan), although each have their own borderline psychosis. With Shirley hospitalized (and largely sidelined from the film’s mid-section, despite most of the first 30 minutes being entirely her tale), Barry picks up hippy/hobo Shaz (Collette) and puts her in charge of the household. Strong bonds are formed and these scenes represent the best moments in the film; Shaz’s cafe showdown with two teen tormentors is a highlight.
However, Hogan loses control of his imagined world in the third act. An awkwardly weighty amount of new exposition is introduced, spinning the film off into its own bi-polar existence. Meagre subplots involving Kerry Fox’s snotty neighbour, Liev Shrieber’s bitter ex-shark hunter, Deborah Mailman’s lesbian mental-patient, Sam Clark’s surfie heart-throb and Caroline Goodall’s doll-obsessed auntie are all loopy artifice but are afforded hefty screen-time. The engaging rapport between Shaz and the girls is jettisoned in favour of a darker, far less credible plot involving Shaz’s sad history. Way over-stretched at 116 minutes, Mental seems to end on at least four different occasions before Hogan grinds the whimsy into gear again…and again…and again.
As with Muriel’s Wedding, the ace in Hogan’s sleeve is Toni Collette. Though her very broad ‘Strine may be a turn-off for some, she gives her all in a performance that asks her to go beyond the call of duty in some particularly distasteful scenes; Hogan’s penchant for icky physical humour extends to elaborately silly gags about menstruating and lighting farts. Others who register strongly are Gibney, whose startling physical commitment to the role will shock some; Shrieber’s salty curmudgeon, Trevor Blundell; and, the bit players who populate the mental healthcare institution, many of which provide the film’s biggest laughs.
The autobiographical nature of both Muriel’s Wedding and Mental ensures Hogan connects with the character’s idiosyncrasies; the gaudy flair that he splashes about pales next to the affection he has for his characters. The plot may be cumbersome and the humour over-played, but Mental still manages to feel like the vision of a director working from the heart, albeit via an appropriately twisted mind.