Over under sideways down: Mental **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2013)

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I’m beginning to worry about Toni Collette. While I realize that she is an actor (and a damn fine one) who is playing a seriously unhinged character in P.J. Hogan’s Mental, it’s just that she’s played these seriously unhinged characters so frequently, and with such unflagging gusto, I am starting to wonder if this woman really is off her fucking rocker. And if she is, know that I’m not judging; after all, that’s what made the late great Jonathan Winters such a comedic genius (he actually did have a few screws loose…may he R.I.P.).

In this outing, Collette (who made her bones with movie audiences as Hogan’s leading lady in his wildly popular 1994 Australian import, Muriel’s Wedding) plays a Nanny from Hell named Shaz (think Mary Poppins meets Courtney Love). She hitchhikes into a New South Wales burg, accompanied by her trusty dog, Ripper. She’s picked up by Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia), an exasperated father of five daughters. He is at wit’s end, because his wife Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) who has a history of mental issues, believes that she is Maria von Trapp (in the opening, she serenades the neighbors and horrifies her kids by belting out a lively rendition of “The Sound of Music” while hanging laundry). Consequently, Barry, an ambitious politician, has sent his wife “on holiday” (the laughing house) on the eve of a campaign. What to do about his daughters?

For unfathomable reasons beyond the ken of any halfway responsible parent, Barry (who apparently spends so little quality time with his family that he can’t keep all his daughters’ names straight) offers the off-the-wall Shaz a gig as the family nanny. With his wife tucked away under psychiatric observation and his children under possibly psychotic supervision by a total stranger, Barry can now get back on track with his true passions: philandering and politicking. Needless to say, this highly dysfunctional home environment has imbued the Moochmore sisters with assorted neuroses of their own; but as we’ve learned from similar (and superior) films like Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping and Eugene Corr’s Desert Bloom, it’s nothing the Kooky Free Spirited Auntie can’t cure.

A wild pastiche of general hysteria, screeching actors, busy sets and loud colors, Mental is a cacophonous, anxiety-inducing assault on the senses. Hogan told an interviewer that the story is loosely autobiographical, that there really was a “Shaz” who played a similar role in his childhood. That’s nice to know, but why turn such a potentially interesting personal memoir into what amounts to a live action Saturday morning cartoon? Now that I think about it, it is not unlike a Pedro Almodovar film; except Almodovar seems to know when to put a sock in it and allow his narrative to breathe a bit. While there’s something to be said for quirk, ebullience and verve (of which this film certainly has no shortage), Hogan refuses to let viewers up for air, leaving us to drown in his enthusiasm.

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