The Australian comedy has had sharply differing critical reactions. 
27 Aug 2012 - 9:50 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 4:50 PM

P.J. Hogan's Australian comedy Mental was the closing night attraction at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Judging by two of the first reviews, one wonders if there were two versions.

The film, which Universal will release on October 4, stars Toni Collette as a knife-wielding hippie hitchhiker who becomes a life-changing nanny to the five daughters of a dysfunctional family.

Variety's Richard Kuipers branded it as a “mediocre return to grotesque Australian suburban comedy” by the writer-director of Muriel's Wedding. Sounding a touch elitist, Kuipers opined the film delivers “enough lowbrow laughs to scrape by as a crowd-pleaser for undiscriminating” audiences, but he judged much of humour is driven by a “savage near-hatred of everything suburban.”

The Hollywood Reporter's Megan Lehmann might almost have been reviewing a different film as she sparked to a “disarmingly cuckoo Australian production [that] finds its focus, punching through the humour with moments of wrenching gravity as it challenges the stereotypes of mental illness.”

Such polarised opinions are a source of bemusement for Rob Carlton, who has a supporting role in Mental as a small-time political crony of the local mayor (Anthony LaPaglia), who hires the nanny after placing his mentally unstable wife (Rebecca Gibney) in psychiatric care.

Carlton hasn't seen the finished film, just an early rough cut, and he's full of praise for Collette (with whom he toured England with the Australian Theatre for Young People when she was 16), LaPaglia (“a great comic foil, hilarious”) and Gibney's performance (“stunning, beautiful, bright and sad”).

As for Variety's review, Carlton wryly concludes that the critic “didn't see what I saw”. The actor has learned to take reviews in his stride, shrugging off the mostly negative responses to Any Questions for Ben?, in which he played the father of Josh Lawson's Ben. And he points out Red Dog had a few detractors.

Carlton was excited at the chance to meet American filmmaker Jerry Zucker, one of the producers of Mental, who directed Top Secret! and Airplane, which he loved as a boy. He met Zucker at the end of his first day on the Gold Coast set, a tiring day which started when he caught an early morning flight from Melbourne after finishing a night shoot on the FMC pay-TV network series Conspiracy 365. The actor was chuffed when the American told him, “You made me laugh for a different reason on every take”.

Next month he starts shooting the ABC's Paper Giants: Magazine Wars, the sequel to Paper Giants — The Birth of Cleo, again playing the larger-than-life Kerry Packer. Carlton was in negotiations to play the media tycoon in the Nine network miniseries Howzat! Kerry Packer's War until, he says, the producers at Southern Star “decided to go in a different direction” and the role went to his mate Lachy Hulme.

The versatile Carlton seems equally adept at playing good guys as villains. His website, which spruiks his services as a corporate MC, notes that he was thrown out of Summer Bay by Alf, had his testicles removed in A Country Practice, had his kidney stolen in the feature film Muggers, changed gender in Strange Bedfellows, was shot in the heart with an arrow in the US series Roar, shot dead as he stalked Water Rats' Frank Holloway, had his heart removed by the side of the road on All Saints, trampled by horses and women in McLeod's Daughters, and he killed a granny on Thank God You're Here.

Later this year he intends to devote several months to developing two feature films, a comedy targeted at the US market which he will write and direct; and an Australian comedy-drama in the vein of The Big Chill, written by novelist Adrienne Ferreira, looking at friends who met at university, which he'll direct.

As for switching between acting, directing and writing, he says simply, “I like telling stories and telling other people's stories.”