“Mental” Mash-Up Belongs On The Big Screen

It’s big question when considering seeing a smaller, family-drama “art house” film: Is it worth seeing on a big screen, or can you wait for the DVD and not miss much?

P.J. Hogan’s chaotic heartwarmer Mental—which opens Friday at New Haven’s Criterion—makes a strong case for see-it-now status in its first few minutes.

You know that sweeping mountaintop opening of The Sound of Music, with Julie Andrews warbling in the Austrian mountaintops? Well, Hogan (the auteur’s of Muriel’s Wedding, My Best Friend’s Wedding and even some movies that have nothing to do with weddings) has recreated that musical majesty in a suburban Australian backyard. The cameras soar and swoop as a middle-aged housewife named Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney from Hogan’s 1980s TV series The Flying Doctors, plus adaptations of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Nightmares and Dreamscapes) runs amok, wailing “The hills are alive” as the neighbors watch in a disdain.

Shirley’s wacky. So are her five daughters. At least they’ve convinced themselves of that. “If we’re not mental,” the Moochmores reckon, “we’re just unpopular.” Oldest daughter Coral (Lily Sullivan) wants to prove that she’s bipolar, or suicidal. Another child hears voices. Another screams “I’m a sociopath.”

Their father Barry, a petty politician played by Anthony LaPaglia, is never home. He’s too busy running the country and having affairs with younger women. When Barry commits Shirley to a treatment center for the mentally impaired, then impulsively plucks a distinctively dressed, mad-dogwalking woman off the street to be a live-in babysitter for the kids, things really do get crazy. This Julie Andrews-in-tacky-streetwear, named Shaz and played with unending aggression by Toni Collette (pictured, whose previous efforts at psychological screwball family humor were the HBO series United States of Tara and the film Little Miss Sunshine), brings her own brand of insanity to the mix.

By this point, you have a clear idea of where Mental is heading. It’s not the Moochmores who are insane; it’s the world around them. But Hogan’s able to provide a stronger sociopolitical argument than you often get in these scenarios. He posits that Australia, from its roots as a penal colony, has developed into an entire country of loonies, “a living experiment in madness.” Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Russell Crowe is implicated in this theory. It becomes the mission of Shaz and the Moochmores’ to “upset the delicate balance” of their fellow citizen’s “fantasy world.” The girls confront the OCD woman who scrubs her driveway with a toothbrush, for instance by inviting themselves over to tea and sitting on her pure white couches at a time when they’re all having their menstrual periods.

There are many romantic, though no less rambunctious, moments to balance the bad-taste assaults. Young Coral takes a wild naked ride down a water tunnel at an amusement park with a boy who’s beginning to admire her expressly because she’s so different from the other girls. This scene, beautifully shot and a thrill ride in itself, is another good reason to seek out Mental on a big screen like the Criterion’s.

New Haven has special cause to dig this arch Australian psychocomedy. One of the soul non-Aussies in the cast, Liev Shreiber (sporting an accent, a beard, a withering glare as the jaded producer of a sharkhunting sideshow attraction), is a Yale School of Drama grad. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical The Sound of Music, which remains a solid reference point throughout Mental’s adventures of an unorthodox nanny and an unruly houseful of children, had its world premiere at New Haven’s Shubert in 1959. The co-star of the Sound of Music film, Christopher Plummer (shown in a film clip in Mental singing “Edelweiss”) is a longtime Connecticut resident. And Shaz’s constant casual analysis of the neuroses and disorders of neighbors and passersby eerily resembles conversations you can eavesdrop on at the coffeehouses near Yale.

For communities like ours that pride themselves on their distinctions and unorthodoxies and liberalities, Mental’s open questioning of the very definition of normalcy should go down a treat.

Mental. Written and directed by P.J. Hogan. Starring Toni Collette, Anthony LaPaglia and Liev Shreiber. Released by DADA Films in association with Screen Queensland, Screen NSW, Zucker Production and Story Bridge Films. 116 minutes. No MPAA rating; contains adulat language and situations. Opening Friday, March 29 at Criterion Cinemas, 86 Temple St., New Haven, and elsewhere.

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