P.J. Hogan’s Mental wants to be a wacky, offbeat, bitingly comedic homage to Mary Poppins, peppering the story of an anonymous woman entering and changing the lives of several children with the subtext of mental illness. I can’t help but feel, however, that Hogan has overstepped his bounds; there can indeed be truth in comedy, and comedy in truth, but in this case, anything that can be gleaned as truthful or funny will likely be overshadowed by the innate heavy-handedness of the subject matter. There are scenes that, while not gruesome or obscene, made me so uncomfortable that I squirmed in my seat, hoping they would just end already. I suppose there is something to be said about a filmmaker being audacious, although I wonder if it sometimes comes at too high a cost.
The central characters are the five Moochmore sisters – Leanne (Nicole Freeman), Kayleen (Chelsea Bennett), Jane (Bethany Whitmore), Michelle (Malorie O’Neill), and Coral (Lily Sullivan) – who range in age from young children to mid-teens. They live in a suburb in the Australian coastal town of Dolphin Heads with their mother, Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), who has molded an idealized image of family life after the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music (indeed, the film begins with a helicopter shots of tree-covered mountains before arriving at Shirley’s backyard; she exits the house, does a twirl on the lawn, and begins to sing the title song). Their father, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia), the philandering Mayor of Dolphin Heads, is almost never home; when he is, he cannot relate to anyone, least of all his daughters, who he wishes were sons.
It’s obvious that Shirley is mentally fragile, and she does finally have a break when she orders truckloads of furniture and tells herself Barry won it all as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. Her daughters all believe they have some sort of mental illness; Coral has already attempted suicide by jumping off her bedroom balcony. As it turns out, the only one amongst the girls who is genuinely ill is Michelle, who hears voices in her head and has nightly visions of mechanical men from Lost in Space entering her room. All the others are simply are simply unpopular, in large part because their mother’s reputation. It would seem mental illness runs in the family; Shirley’s resentful sister, Doris (Caroline Goodall), builds her own dolls and treats them as if they were actual children. She even lures Jane into her home just to lop off her red hair and use it for an Elizabeth I replica.
Barry, desperate to ensure he wins an upcoming election, has Shirley discretely committed to a mental institution. He then randomly picks up a woman off the street, as he needs someone to watch his girls. This would be Shaz (Toni Collette), an intimidating, tough-talking, hot-tempered woman who rolls her own cigarettes, carries a knife in her boots, and generally wants to upset the natural order of things. The intention of her role is obvious; she will transform the girls’ lives with her unconventional beliefs, while at the same time confront any family members, friends, or neighbors that obviously suffer from some kind of neuroses. The trouble is, the audience can clearly see that Shaz is herself mentally ill (we must wait until the final act to learn the full extent of her condition), and that, in spite of her meddling, she ends up changing nothing. If everything is left the same as how she found it, then what is the point of this movie?
There’s a subplot involving Coral’s new job at a local water park, specifically at the shark exhibit, where one specific shark with its jaws agape and a mask in its mouth lies in a glass container full of formaldehyde. The owner of the exhibit is the grizzled Trevor Blundell (Liev Shreiber), a former shark hunter and a formidable presence to say the least. Initially, we’re forced to question the significance of this character; his early scenes don’t show him doing much, apart from speaking cryptically to Coral. When it’s finally revealed who he is and what role he has to play, it all felt too contrived, too implausible, and above all, too serious. The same can be said about the entire film, which is founded on unsettling subject matter and ends on a particularly unsatisfying note.
That Hogan was sincere in his efforts, there can be no doubt. In fact, he drew on elements of his own life in order to write the screenplay. Like the character of Shirley, his mother was also committed after suffering a nervous breakdown, and she too was overly attached to The Sound of Music. Like Coral, his sister worked at a shark exhibit in Sydney, and like Shaz, a random hitchhiker became his nanny after being picked up by his father. And like Barry, one of his relatives didn’t understand his daughters and was too macho to bond with them. I understand the process; Hogan, like most writers, has naturally incorporated real-life events into a work of fiction. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make Mental a success. I think his biggest mistake was trying to find the humor in a subject that’s anything but funny.
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