Mental: Melbourne Review

Courtesy of Universal Pictures Australia

The co-production of L.A.-based Zucker Productions and Australia's Story Bridge Films sees director P.J. Hogan reunite with Toni Collette 17 years after their breakout comedy "Muriel's Wedding."

A cuckoo comedy that puts the fun in dysfunctional.

Australian filmmaker PJ Hogan reunites with his "Muriel’s Wedding" star Toni Collette for the Melbourne International Film Festival's closing-night film, also starring Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney.

MELBOURNE -- If there’s method to writer-director PJ Hogan’s madness, it’s not obvious from the unruly opening frames of Mental, a suburban comedy that celebrates mayhem and mischief-making as the correct responses to societal straightjackets.

But, aided and abetted by the rule-defying Toni Collette, whose onscreen powers have only multiplied since the two worked together on the much-loved Muriel’s Wedding in 1994, the equally dissident filmmaker soon makes it clear he’s in control of the crazy.

From the moment Collette’s knife-wielding hippie hitchhiker arrives to play nanny to a dysfunctional family of girls, the disarmingly cuckoo Australian production finds its focus, punching through the humor with moments of wrenching gravity as it challenges the stereotypes of mental illness.

Conservative audiences will find Mental’s super-vivid kitsch and salty language overstimulating. Tough luck, Hogan seems to say, and there are enough broad-minded Aussies to make his homecoming production (following big-budget Hollywood crowd-pleasers My Best Friend’s Wedding and Confessions of a Shopaholic) a modest-sized hit upon its local release Oct. 4.

Hogan’s semi-autobiographical work is unrepentantly Australian, and the accents are strident, but the presence of Collette (whose title role in TV’s United States of Tara has upped her profile internationally) and Liev Schreiber (Salt, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) may help overseas prospects. Universal Pictures will release Mental in the U.K. on Dec. 7, with a U.S. release yet to be announced.

Just as the songs of ABBA consoled the delightfully oddball title character in Muriel’s Wedding, Hogan uses The Sound of Music to play doctor to sweet Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney), a mother of five teenage daughters whose life as a doormat has driven her round the twist.

We meet her belting out “The Hills Are Alive” as she hangs out the washing in the fictional Queensland coastal town of Dolphin Heads, but soon her philandering politician husband Barry (Without a Trace’s Anthony LaPaglia) has her committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Charged with caring for a clutch of outcast girls who are each convinced they suffer from their own peculiar disorder, Barry panics and hires Shaz off the side of the road because her dog makes her look trustworthy.

So how do you solve a problem like the Moochmores?

Collette cranks the kook up to 11 as the nutty and inspiring Shaz, fashioning herself as “the avenging angel of the perpetually humiliated” and leading 16-year-old Coral (Lily Sullivan) and her sisters Michelle (Malorie O’Neill), Leanne (Nicole Freeman), Kayleen (Chelsea Bennett) and Jane (Bethany Whitmore) from town jokes toward self-esteem and happiness.

Along the way she upends social conventions -- and not a few wheelie bins -- while questioning the sanity beneath the propriety of the family’s neighbors.

Kerry Fox, as a compulsive neatnik, and Caroline Goodall, as Shirley’s jealous, doll-collecting older sister, turn in fine portrayals of women passing as normal, while national treasure Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires) is brilliant as a gleefully nonconformist lesbian.

Shaz may look like she’s traveling light but she has baggage and an agenda, personified by Coral’s leathery shark-hunter boss Trevor, played by  Schreiber nailing a flawless Australian accent.

Schreiber’s natural intensity helps to ground this restlessly eccentric film, while the pivotal role of the awkward child-woman Coral should make a star of gorgeous newcomer Lily Sullivan.

Hogan’s more-is-more credo extends to a jam-packed production design, and bright cinematography by veteran lenser Don McAlpine (Oscar-nominated for Moulin Rouge!) adds to a technically assured production boasting all the breathless ups and downs of a fun-park ride.

Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival
Production companies: Zucker Productions, Story Bridge Films
Cast: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Rebecca Gibney, Kerry Fox, Deborah Mailman
Writer-director: PJ Hogan
Producers: Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Todd Fellman, Jocelyn Moorhouse
Executive producers: Gary Hamilton, Bryce Menzies, Lee Soon Kie
Co-producer: Sean Gesell
Director of photography: Don McAlpine
Production designer: Graham Walker
Costume designer: Tim Chappel
Music: Michael Yezerski
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Sales: Arclight
No MPAA rating, 111 minutes