The latest from movie maker P.J. Hogan is a directing tour de force, with some excellent acting from an impressive, award-winning cast, but not all that enjoyable. This is partly because the trailer for the movie is so misleading, suggesting Mental is a whacky family comedy. It begins, after all, with the mom of the family, played by Rebecca Gibney, breaking into an impressive rendition of the “The Sound of Music” while hanging the laundry as the kids breaking into a panic because mom has gone “mental” again.
Funny stuff, right? But then the movie goes dark. Mom is “mental” because her husband, played by Anthony LaPaglia (Long Time Gone, Underground), has psychologically abused her as well as cheated on her. He is so disconnected from his family, he can’t keep the names of his five daughters straight, only valuing them because they make for good images in his political campaign literature.
The mom goes too crazy to stay around the house and her husband has her committed. In solving one problem he creates another because he has no idea how to raise the girls. Solution: pick up a female hitchhiker and make her the kids’ nanny.
The hitchhiker, named Shaz, played by Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine), is the film’s protagonist in the sense that her actions move the story along. The father is the antagonist in that his thick-skulled insensitivity keeps her from advancing her goals. Shaz is not particularly sympathetic (unless you have a soft spot for foul-mouthed, drugged-out hippies) and the father never really threatening, just annoying.
What nearly saves the film are the kids, convinced they are all “mental” as well, but who never give up trying to be a family, inspired by their mom’s example.
The older girl, Coral, played by Lily Sullivan, gets a job at a carnival shark exhibit where she meets her love interest, played by Sam Clark, undoubtedly the most annoying Australian surfer dude ever. Her boss at the carnival, Trevor the shark hunter, is played by Liev Schreiber (Salt, Repo Men). I’ve been a fan of Schreiber’s work, and he does an excellent job portraying the menacing, yet sympathetic character with a secret.
I had three other problems with the film.
Accents. I couldn’t understand about 5 to 10 percent of the dialog due to the heavy Australian accents. I viewed the film with an audience of other film critics and you could tell I wasn’t the only one with this problem. At certain points when the film had been edited as if to leave time for laughter, there was only silence. Not because the line wasn’t funny, but because no one understood it. Why can’t all Australians talk like Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe?
Most good films follow the protagonist’s ups and downs as the narrative moves forward. The ups and downs in this film are so extreme that I felt the story was alternating between a Disney and Stephen King, and It was annoying.
(Spoiler Alert – spoiler in next paragraph)
I also have a problem with the movie’s ending, which shows Shaz and the shark hunter being dragged down beneath the ocean. Shaz always carries a knife in her boot and it seems this is set up so she can cut the shark hunter free and live happily ever after. But, she doesn’t. OK, they are united and cleansed in death. Then, after a scene where Mom, the kids, and an apparently contrite father, are reunited (singing “Edelweiss”), Shaz comes back for one last vindictive and annoying act, as mean and foul as ever. That ending seems tacked on like in a cheap horror film—”Maybe we shouldn’t kill her, so we can make a sequel.”