Synopsis: The Moochmore girls are certain they all suffer from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness – because if they’re not crazy then they’re just unpopular. Their mother Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) – unable to cope with her demanding daughters and unsupported by her philandering politician husband, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia) – suffers a nervous breakdown. After Barry commits his wife to a mental hospital, he finds himself alone with five teenage girls he barely knows. Desperate, he impulsively picks up a hitchhiker named Shaz (Toni Collette) and installs her in his home as nanny to his daughters.
Lightning doesn't strike twice for Hogan and Collette.
The unwieldy script overeggs the ‘we’re all crazy’ pudding
In 1994, PJ Hogan took a personal experience of mental illness and family dysfunction and crafted a script that was as tragic as it was hilarious. Muriel’s Wedding followed the divergent outcomes of a mother and daughter, both so completely overwhelmed by the idea of their own inconsequentiality that they faked fiancés, forged cheques or faded into the background completely to keep up the facade of normalcy.
Where Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) lied, her mum, Betty (Jeannie Drynan), laid low; both did it to fit around the bitchy covens of surfie chicks and social climbers who made them feel small, and to orbit their greasy palmed bigwig of a father/husband, “Bill the battler” . (The latter played by Bill Hunter, unforgettable as a man more concerned with saving face than with the escalating manic depression in his midst).
Muriel’s Wedding was brilliantly subversive, as much for the way it exposed the myth of “she’ll be right” Australianness, as for its eloquent handling of serious mental illness in a breezy comedy peppered with Abba songs and memorable zingers.
Out of deference to the key players, Hogan didn’t promote the fact that Muriel, Betty and Bill were in fact, avatars of Hogan’s own sister, mother, and father. (Case in point: Tweed Heads-raised Hogan had the Heslops situated in ‘Dolphin Heads’ but to placate his sister’s mortification that their acquaintances would draw the dots, he changed it to ‘Porpoise Spit’). The belated knowledge of Hogan’s connectedness to the Heslop household only elevated my own appreciation for his ability to assess the tragicomedy as screenwriter and director of what is one of my favourite Australian films. Which is all a rather lengthy preamble to get to the matter of Hogan’s second attempt to mine the themes and territory of his upbringing, Mental.
Inspired by earlier family events than those depicted in Muriel, Mental draws on Hogan’s experience of an unconventional babysitter – a hitchhiker called Shaz – whom his father collected from the roadside one afternoon to care for the rowdy household during one of his wife’s stints in an institution.
Nods to Muriel are many and varied, with the most obvious connection being the re-casting of Toni Collette, this time as Shaz. A tough westie shiela with a knife concealed in her cowboy boots, Shaz dispenses hard luck home truths in an exaggerated strain of ‘Strine’ (she chews her vowels like they're gristle on a T-bone), and agitates all of the put-upon Moochmore girls (for they are all girls in this incarnation of the family) to embrace their ‘inner mental’. The main objects of her tough love techniques are the fragile adolescent Coral (Lily Sullivan) and the institutionalised Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), the broken-down housewife accustomed to the jibes of casually cruel shopgirls.
Hogan is wont to describe Mental as “sharing Muriel’s DNA” but the near-20 year gap between the two films makes them distant cousins, many times removed. The passage of time has not been kind and makes for a film that lacks the warmth, cohesion and, worst of all, humour, of its predecessor.
The unwieldy script overeggs the ‘we’re all crazy’ pudding, with support characters introduced in scathing shorthand as “crazy doll lady” and “crazy OCD lady”, before Hogan devotes considerable screen time to demonstrate the same. The villains are one-note and lack the complexity that Muriel’s-era Hogan afforded them. (Say what you will about smiling assassin Deirdre Chambers – at least you knew that Betty knew that she was a dab hand with lipstick, base and eyeliner).
A flat opening scene introduces a Sound of Music motif (the film was a favourite of Hogan’s mother) to Mental, which is mostly a suggestion of Shaz’s eventual appearance as the anti-Fraulein Maria, until the reference is hauled out and hammered home again late in the piece, in an unconvincing outing of ‘Edelweiss’. The latter is delivered by Anthony La Paglia as Moochmore patriarch Barry – miscast as a younger version of ‘Bill the battler’, relishing the salad days of his time on local council. La Paglia gets the shortest shrift with a character whose glimpses at his family’s dysfunction are inconsistent (he seeks help for his traumatised daughter but double-crosses Shaz), and the suddenness of his ‘redemption’ rings especially false.
The tonal changes make for a fractured watch; Shaz’s arrival some 20-30 minutes offers up a few much-needed laughs (a candid reunion with Debra Mailman’s character is a highlight), but the intermittent one-liners can’t sustain the film’s overweight running time, its disjointed plotting and its several false endings.
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