TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Australian actress Toni Collette and director PJ Hogan had an international hit in 1994 with the dark comedy "Muriel's Wedding." The pair have reunited for "Mental," the story of a brash nonconformist who becomes the caretaker of five confused girls. The film can be seen in theaters as well as on demand. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN BYLINE: "Mental" is madder than madcap. I heard one critic sniff it's kind of broad - and Your Honor, the defense agrees. But if broad means unsubtle, it doesn't have to mean unreal. Mental makes most other movies seem boringly, misleadingly sane. Why misleadingly? Because writer-director PJ Hogan aims for a tone that's more concentrated in its craziness - and thereby serves up more concentrated truths about human nature.
He opens with his camera hurtling over a mountainous landscape to the opening strains of "The Sound of Music," whereupon a woman named Shirley Moochmore, played by Rebecca Gibney, emerges from her suburban Australian house and warbles the hills are alive while her five young daughters cringe.
They're outcasts at school as it is. They don't need neighbors spreading word about their mum's over-identification with the family von Trapp. What's more, each girl believes herself to have some sort of mental illness. They're overly influenced by a diagnosis-happy culture. It's true that the second-eldest daughter is genuinely delusional. But the others plainly suffer only from life with an unstable mother and absent, philandering dad.
That dad - played with weasely bravura by Anthony LaPaglia in his true Aussie accent - is the town mayor and running for re-election, so he can't have his wife making scenes, especially in song. After sending her off for a euphemistic rest, he impulsively picks up a hitchhiker and installs her as his daughters' caretaker - their Maria von Trapp.
A word about Maria: As much as I adore Julie Andrews, her prim demeanor runs counter to the curlers-under-the-wimple maverick her sister nuns make her out to be. This Maria, however, is a piece of work. Her name is Shaz, and she's played by Toni Collette, who became a star two decades ago in director Hogan's "Muriel's Wedding."
Shaz doesn't approve of the mess of the Moochmore home and puts the girls to work. But she is, in most other areas, militantly anti-normal. At a shop she uses pastries to demonstrate to the girls how far removed her country is and how, as Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" puts it, Abby Normal.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MENTAL")
TONI COLLETTE: (as Shaz) America. Europe. Asia. And all the way down here is Australia. Alone. Isolated. Ever wonder why? Why we're down here?
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Well, we were a penal colony.
COLLETTE: (as Shaz) Well, that's the cover story, yeah. But historically, where have they always sent the loonies? As far away as possible. You can't get any further away than Australia. We weren't a penal colony, we was a lunatic asylum. Our ancestors were loonies and this is the result. Have a look around. There's no such things as normal. It's just different shades of mental.
(as Shaz) Your totally mental are in the lunatic asylums. The rest of them - the delusions, borderlines, compulsives, paranoids, schizoids, make up Australia as we know it. We're nothing but a living experiment in madness under constant observation by the psychiatric community of the world.
BYLINE: Toni Collette plays every acting part as if she has nothing to lose - what director Hogan clearly treasures. Her Shaz has a bit of Auntie Mame, but this is no '60s R.D. Laing portrait of mental illness as healthful. We cheer Shaz when she takes revenge on people who've given the Moochmore girls a hard time - including the mother's square sister, who hacks off part of the youngest daughter's red hair for a Queen Elizabeth doll she's making.
But Shaz is in a dark place. She can turn on anyone, even the girls. Those Moochmore girls are terrific. They're led by Lily Sullivan as the oldest, who for some reason thinks she's ugly. She works at a local amusement park, at a shark exhibit overseen by an Ahab type named Trevor. He's played by Liev Schreiber, who's never been as likable as he is with a thick black beard and thick Aussie accent and fierce dark eyes.
I'm not sure what I think about the climax, which veers wildly from its mock-"Sound of Music" template into something more melodramatic. But the last time I was so affected by a film that pushed the boundaries this way was in 1991 with "The Fisher King" - also a work in which a zany nonconformist has a tragic dimension.
That's a richer, more grounded movie; it doesn't have the element of camp that's a turn-off for some people in "Mental." But I say embrace the broadness. Or, as the filmmakers might put it, go "Mental."
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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