She sits at a round table with her flock. Coming for all the desserts and baked goods this cheerful slice of commercialism trades in, the young girls who make up the family Moochmore are being indoctrinated into the world according to Shaz. Played by the always criminally underrated Toni Collette, Shaz is the type of woman who knows how to motivate those already beaten by life’s meaner judgments; the people who accept it when they are called stupid, lazy or mental (Australian for cray-cray). Using the table as her map and donuts and croissants to represent Europe, the U.S. and Asia, she asks her class why the edible Australia is isolated. The youngest gives history’s approved answer that Australia was a penal colony. “Well yeah, that’s the cover story,” Shaz says with a sneer at the mass-accepted lies. “Australia was a lunatic asylum.…Our ancestors were loonies and this is the result!” That is the worldview Shaz uses to explain all the strange shenanigans that go on in the Land Down Under and given the tone of PJ Hogan’s latest film. One cannot help but agree with her by the picture’s end.
Written and directed by Hogan, the quirky mind behind Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and the overlooked Peter Pan (2003), this Friday’s VOD and limited release Mental is a schizophrenic love letter to his turbulent youthful years in Australia. Like the movie’s Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney), Hogan’s mother was committed to a mental hospital when he was growing up. One day, he came home from school and was told by his oft-absent father that mom was on holiday and a strange hitchhiker he had picked up on the side of the road would be their new nanny. However, while Shaz and Shirley are clearly based on these two crucial figures from his childhood, right down to his belief that bullies pushed around his sane mom, this film is its own candy colored concoction that comes complete with sugar rushes…and sometimes crashes.
Shirley is a woman with a song in her heart. Having watched The Sound of Music (1965) one too many times growing up, she does not understand why her five daughters do not wish to join her in belting “The Hills are Alive” for the whole neighborhood when watering the lawn. A true embarrassment for eldest daughter Coral (Lily Sullivan), who tried to kill herself once back when she was 13, Mother Moochmore has little luck at convincing any of her brood to sing along. Yet, can anyone blame her for retreating into her musical fantasies? Ever since Coral’s “disgrace,” Father Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia), Mayor of the town and worst father of the year, is barely present in their home life. He constantly misses dinner and is publicly out philandering about his suburban kingdom. All the (white) neighbors judge Shirley and her daughters to be the equivalent of an “Aboriginal encampment.” Even Shirley’s own sister, Doris (Caroline Goodall), condescends to Shirley because of her weight and favorably compares her creepy mannequin dolls to the girls. She even manipulates Shirley to send her youngest, Jane (Bethany Whitmore), over to donate those red locks for a new Elizabeth I doll.
Finally, after Shirley goes on a spending binge, Barry’s had enough and sends her away with the men in white coats. But who’s going to watch the children? Barry is a man who imagines himself the Aussie Jack Kennedy, so it is bad enough that his wife gave him only girls. Now, she leaves him to raise them? Luckily on the same day, he discovers Shaz by the side of the road. The chain-smoking, boozing drifter is the kind of nanny who could make Julie Andrews cry. Under her tutelage, the Moochmore family will prove their worth…by showing that everyone else is just as nuts. The two snobby neighbors in the freakishly clean white walls and white-carpeted house? The mom’s an OCD racist and the daughter is a closeted lesbian. Nobody is any less crazy than Shirley or the rest of the Moochmores. To paraphrase Jane: they aren’t mental, they’re just unpopular. But during all this feel good family revelry, Coral begins to realize that Shaz has ulterior motives for reconciling this wild and crazy group.
Mental is a pop collage of vibrant colors and emotions. Even initially gloomy Coral works at a water park where she is forced to wear hilariously multi-colored beach polo shirts. Nobody is happy, yet the movie’s chipper pace is only that. It is the kind of bizarre narrative where a pop surfing ballad, written by Coral’s stoner love interest, can be played during a love scene ten minutes before it is later written and performed within the movie’s narrative. The freewheeling joyfulness the movie exhibits is at times infectious, especially during Shaz’s early scenes. Michelle (Malorie O’Neill) has nightmares of talking aliens? No worries luv, you are just obsessing over an episode from the ancient sci-fi show, Lost in Space. You also may be schizophrenic, but it’s no biggie! All your neighbors think you are nothing but worthless layabouts? Let’s climb a mountain!
The gung-ho spirit of the movie unfortunately peters out by the second half. The picture also features a very under-utilized but intriguing turn from Liev Schreiber as Trevor Blundell. Trevor is that simultaneously charismatic and anti-social hunter type that all cinematic odes to Australia apparently require. He is Coral’s boss who looks after her with the leering gaze of what is hopefully a father figure. He has brought to the water park the remains of a stuffed shark, which supposedly ate famed Aussie PM Fish Food, Harold Holt. Trevor uses it to terrify the tourists and unwitting horny surfer boys alike. However, it is made clear very early that he and Shaz coincidentally share a troubled past. One that threatens to drag the whole movie down with broad melodrama sprinkled in-between the musical numbers and scenes of exuberant lunacy.
Fortunately, the bipolar nature of the movie’s third act does not weigh down the buoyancy of what came before. Hogan brings all his kitschy oddball charm to Mental’s frantic tone. While the kaleidoscope of bright emotions rapidly mixed with even brighter visuals may be too indulgently sweet a flavor for some, it leaves a delectable aftertaste long after the film’s final punch line is served. It is complimented all the more by Collette letting her own psychoses out of their cage in a role that gives her more to chew on than she has had in years. For those who already appreciate Hogan’s acquired palate, it is a course not to be missed.