Showing today Out of Competition at the Rome Film Festival, “Mental” marks director P.J. Hogan’s (“My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic”) reunion with his “Muriel’s Wedding” star Toni Collette. The intervening years may have made them both older, but not necessarily wiser, as “Mental” seems content to rework the “Muriel’s Wedding” formula but with greater resources, like a now-established star and a supporting cast of notable Aussie actors (many of whom we had kind of forgotten were Australian) at its disposal. Both films take small-town Australia as their settings, both feature female characters marked by unpopularity and social inadequacy, and both are inspired by, and constantly reference, particular kitschy elements of pop culture — ‘Muriel’ had Abba, ‘Mental’ has “The Sound of Music.” But where the former film kept its focus narrow and thus managed a degree of consistency through tonal shifts from comedy to pathos, (a lot due to Collette’s breakthrough performance), here the canvas is bigger and the cast more populous, which results in a film that ends up kind of all over the map. The more dramatic moments feel unanchored to the more farcical, and the humor ranges erratically from scatological to tender/heartwarming and back to cheap shots at slightly uncomfortable stereotypes. ‘Uneven,’ would be the kind way of putting it, but ‘messy’ is probably nearer the truth.
Meet the Moochmores: ‘Sound of Music’-obsessed mother Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), absent philandering Dad Barry (Anthony LaPaglia) and their five daughters. Coral, the eldest, works at an amusement park and tried to commit suicide at age 13 — no one seems overly worried by this because it ended with her plummeting wackily onto the roof of her dad’s car and knocking him unconscious. Michelle sees aliens and hears voices. Jane has her hair hacked off to be made into a doll’s wig by her aunt. Leanne believes she’s a sociopath and Kayleen gets the gag of being the one whose name her dad most frequently forgets. Following a particularly embarrassing episode, Shirley gets packed off to the loony bin, and the house devolves into even more chaos until Barry picks up hitchhiker Shaz (Toni Collette) and installs her as a kind of temporary mother. She, of course, turns out to be way more deranged than any of them, a kind of manic pixie nightmare, but hey, perhaps this wild, free-spirited non-conformist is exactly what they all need in their lives?
And so Shaz becomes the loopy Maria to these reluctant Von Trapps and through some outrageous antics and tough love, marshalls them into a (literally) harmonising, functional family group who cherish their oddness and realise their individual self-worth and oh, you get the message. There are some genuinely fun-silly moments, and a couple of actually transgressive gross-out scenes that rival anything those Farrellys could come up with (there are a lot of females in this film, and a lot of white couches, is all we’ll say). And if the film had just run with that and everyone had stopped Learning Lessons about Life and Love, it could have been a lot of dumb fun. Collette chews the scenery enjoyably in a role that is essentially a few of her “United States of Tara” alternate personae rolled into one, though here, she's shorn of that show’s bitter, clever dialogue, and suffers from having her ‘condition’ overexplained and overjustified in a way that feels rather disrespectful of actual mental conditions. Liev Schreiber has fun as a Steve Irwin-style shark hunter (“Everything is a shark”) whose character gets badly sold out by an unnecessary ending, and Kerry Fox is almost unrecognisable as the mean, racist, anal-retentive neighbor and nemesis.
But enjoyable performances (and winning newcomer Lily Sullivan as Coral should also get a shout-out here) can’t compensate for the film’s lack of control: in Hogan’s hands the broad humor sells out the sincerity, and when that mark is missed, we end up at ‘twee.’ Fans of "Muriel’s Wedding" and Baz Lurhmann’s "Strictly Ballroom" should find plenty to enjoy here, but, even with this writer's unabashed adoration of “The Sound of Music,” “Mental” didn’t sing for us. It just couldn’t hold its tune. [C+]