Wednesday 14 November 2012

Round the twist: "Mental"

The assumption may have been that last week's The Sapphires would soften our hearts and minds. My Best Friend Wedding director PJ Hogan's return to his native Australia, the broad, frenetic comedy Mental, opens with Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), unstable matriarch of the Moochmore clan, belting out the title song to The Sound of Music to bemused and horrified neighbours, while her many daughters - left rudderless by the continuing absence of their philandering politician father Barry (Anthony LaPaglia) - fret about what genetics is about to hand down for them to inherit. What transpires from here is a case study set out in the loudest colours and the wackiest production design: as everyone discovers the cause of the girls' mental and emotional dishevelment, barely a scene goes by without a car ploughing into something, a dog leaping between somebody's legs, or a cuckoo clock going off. 

The idea is that Australia isn't so much a penal colony as an outsized loony bin, in which there can be "no normal, but different shades of mental". "I hear voices," one of Shirley's brood admits, and Hogan takes his characters' side absolutely by setting all 200 of them to sticking their faces and their tongues out at his tilted camera and getting them to shout la-la-nee-nee-noo-noo, or variants thereof, at the very top of their voices. The storytelling underpinning such wackiness itself falls prone to sudden jolts, the narrative equivalent of ECT. An instant after Shirley disappears after going doolally with her hubby's credit card, Barry deposits a heavily eye-shadowed hitchhiker (Toni Collette) in the family's living room, who will turn out to be an expert in a very unorthodox and hands-on branch of psychology - a development Hogan has to hurry and harry us past, lest we notice how ridiculous it is.

Mental has a good cast of actresses espousing a positive message, equal parts R.D. Laing and kd lang; it also has a wily, enjoyable supporting role for Liev Schreiber as a Steve Irwin-ish alpha who speaks almost exclusively in aquatic metaphors ("Life is sharks"). Yet any subtlety or nuance is quickly drowned out by the looney-tunes cacophony Hogan fosters, and for all the diversion or amusement this approach leads to, the film may ultimately stand or fall on your preferred course of treatment. Talking about mental illness is a healthy thing, and to be encouraged, but this determinedly high-frequency comedy insists on farting flames for smoke signals, and then shrieking about it in your ear for the full 116 minutes.

Mental opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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