Film review: Mental

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IT’S been 18 years since PJ Hogan and Toni Collette first got together for Muriel’s Wedding, an outrageous Australian cartoon, with Collette as a wedding-obsessed, Abba-loving teenager who gets out of the dead-end town of Porpoise Spit and makes it to Sydney, where she turns her life around.

Mental (15)

Director: PJ Hogan

Running time: 116 minutes

* * *

Besides the vital presence of Collette, Mental and Muriel have so much in common that you suspect Hogan has some unfinished business here. Both films feature an overbearing local politician father for instance; Anthony LaPaglia is the philandering mayor of Dolphin Heads, Queensland, who can’t even remember the names of his five daughters. Both pictures also feature a sad recessive mum; Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) has a high camp music obsession, which she inflicts on the family. However, instead of Abba, she adores Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound Of Music, and dreams of having a family like the Von Trapps.

In fact the one thing that unites the Moochmore family is a belief that they all have mental disorders, which they use as a shield against the outside world. As one of the sisters says, “if we’re not mental, we’re just unpopular”. In fact, they are largely outclassed on the issues front by most of Dolphin Heads’ residents, including an aunt (Caroline Goodall) who collects eerie china dolls, a neat freak neighbour (Kerry Fox) with a daughter who runs off with a gobby lesbian (The Sapphires’ Deborah Mailman) and a shark-crazed impresario (Liev Schreiber) who runs the town’s local attraction, Jaws of Terror.

However, it is Shirley who has a public meltdown which gets her despatched to a local institution. Casting around for someone to marshal his family, Mayor Moochmore chances on a pot-smoking hitchhiker called Shaz (Collette), and installs her as the girls’ new governess, despite the fact she has mental issues of her own. She also carries a knife that would make Crocodile Dundee swoon, and rather than try to integrate the Moochmores socially, she encourages them to embrace their oddness.

The fact that the film is inspired by events in the life of writer/director Hogan is the most arresting detail of Mental, which fails to parlay its autobiographical drive into something consistent. Hogan’s second attempt to mine his tragicomic childhood lacks the giddy warmth and unhinged ebullience of Muriel’s Wedding. Instead, Mental is a bipolar blend of Aussie kitsch and Hollywood sentiment, which relies far too heavily on The Sound Of Music and brassy personalities. Overlong and overcharged, there are problems here that even a churchload of nuns couldn’t solve.

On general release from Friday