Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Comedy,Drama Movie Review of ‘Mental’ (2012)

Movie Review of ‘Mental’ (2012)

As the title implies, 2012’s Mental is completely mental and all over the shop, a wild mishmash of goofy humour, psychological exploration and bleak drama. The picture comes from writer-director P.J. Hogan, who was responsible for 1994’s cult hit Muriel’s Wedding before moving to America where he directed My Best Friend’s WeddingPeter Pan and Confessions of a ShopaholicMental marks Hogan’s return to his Australian roots, crafting a semi-autobiographical tale that won’t work for everyone. It’s an endearing film, but a complete tonal mess, and it’s probably best consumed by less conservative viewers who’ll be willing to sit through the peculiar chaos.

In suburban Australia, housewife Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney) has lost her mind, suffering a complete mental breakdown in front of her judgmental neighbours. This catches the attention of her neglectful husband, town mayor Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia), who sends Shirley to a mental institution and covers up the truth by telling everyone she’s on holiday. Barry is left to take care of his five frenzied daughters, but has no interest in bonding with them. In a panic, he brings hitchhiker Shaz (Toni Collette) into the house while he continues his electoral campaign. Each of Barry’s daughters have their own quirks, with Coral (Lily Sullivan) believing herself to be schizophrenic while Michelle (Malorie O’Neill) keeps seeing aliens from Lost in Space, but the knife-packing, dog-owning Shaz begins bestowing her own brand of therapy on the girls.

Although the fundamental set-up sounds unbelievable, it actually has a basis in reality; Hogan’s mother was in fact sent to a mental institution by his politician father, who feared that his wife’s illness would harm his electoral chances. And Hogan’s father indeed recruited a random hitchhiker from the street to babysit the family. During the filming ofMuriel’s Wedding, Hogan told Collette stories about the real-life Shaz, and Collette expressed interest in playing her in a film if ever such a production got off the ground. It’s a personal story for Hogan, and he translated the story to the screen with genuine panache. Mental is a colourful motion picture, exuberantly shot by director of photography Don McAlpine, who takes advantage of the picturesque Australian locales.

As soon as Shaz enters the film, Hogan threatens to pursue a conventional story of heart-warming family healing, which would’ve resulted in disposable PG-rated entertainment. But Mental carries its adult rating for a reason, as Hogan’s vision is much darker than expected. He continually takes the film in unexpected directions, abandoning clichéd character arcs as Shaz lets the girls run wild while identifying the neighbours as the insane ones. The final act is particularly unexpected, which is a credit to Hogan. Mental is not a sentimental movie, as its views on contemporary society are fairly bleak, and the characters here all retain their flaws and foibles at the end of the story. This is also the furthest thing from a family movie, as it provides non-sequiturs inappropriate for kids; use of the c-word, a lot of profanity in general, toilet humour, suicidal tendencies, a lesbian Aboriginal, and even a scene of girls menstruating all over the white couches and walls of an obsessive cleaner’s house. The final scene even depicts a fart being set alight, which becomes a flamethrower.

Mental exhibits the same key flaw as Muriel’s Wedding: the picture’s tonal shifts are too jarring and uncomfortable. Hogan frolics around in goofy, borderline slapstick humour at times, but this is contrasted against darker moments, and the merger never quite gels. Certainly, it’s understandable that Mental is probably meant to be schizophrenic since the film is, well, mental, but it never comes together as a coherent whole, nor does it entirely satisfy.

Fortunately, the acting ensemble is marvellous, committing to the madness with gleeful abandon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Collette is the standout, running with the chance to play the off-the-wall Shaz. It’s a showy performance by Collette, and she’s hard to fault, as the actress is often highly amusing and she handles the film’s dramatic moments with sincerity. Also of note is the beautiful Rebecca Gibney, who apparently packed on a considerable amount of weight to play the unhinged Shirley. This is the type of performance that steals awards; Gibney turns a potentially shallow character into a three-dimensional human, making Shirley Moochmore vulnerable and believable. Meanwhile, young Lily Sullivan is a real find as Coral, evincing a naturalism and maturity that you’d expect to see in veteran actors. The rest of the young performers are equally good, selling their individual quirks without devolving into cartoon. Liev Schreiber even shows up here with an Aussie accent, and he’s pretty good, while Deborah Mailman also pops in for a few scenes as an unbalanced old friend of Shaz’s. Mailman is a riot, infusing Mental with a wonderful comedic energy, and she interacts extraordinarily well with Collette.

A few of the big set-pieces fall flat (the climax is botched and feels astonishingly out of place), and the storytelling is undeniably messy, but Mental benefits from Hogan’s sincere direction as well as the game cast. Australian viewers will probably connect with this one the best; it’s unclear how international audiences will respond to it. Mental is not a great film, nor is it completely coherent, but it has enough scenes of greatness, and it’s made with such a smooth sleight-of-hand that it’s worth checking out.

6.5/10

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