There shines a glimmer of promise within the first few minutes of Mental: The hills are alive, or at least they’re in song, in the imagination of a desperate housewife named Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), who belts out the lyrics to “The Sound of Music” while air-drying laundry in her suburban backyard, raising the eyebrows of uptight neighbors and embarrassing her five rambunctious daughters, who agree that their mum has gone bonkers once more. It’s a wacky and inane beginning for a film teeming with equally wacky and inane characters, but it’s also an ambitious and referential one for P.J. Hogan, whose best films frequently employ music as a distinct character, the best friend always there in times of need.
Yet the Australian production quickly dashes any hopes of a return to form for Hogan. Similarities to his brilliant 1994 debut, Muriel’s Wedding, exist, but they’re mostly superficial. Mental features an ever-fabulous Toni Collette as Shaz, a daredevil Mary Poppins type who works as a live-in nanny and empowers five young girls to learn how to stand up for themselves after their mother is sent to an asylum by their negligent, politician father, Barry (Anthony Lapaglia). Shaz is a tough but credible role model, though it’s revealed that she only took on the job in order to enlist the help of unwitting youngsters in helping her hijack her ex-husband’s prized shark, whom she believes contains the spirit of their dead daughter. But like many of the characters in this film who are glibly deemed mental, crazy, loony, or some other non-PC word used to describe mental illness, Shaz doesn’t have a clinical condition. She simply needs closure. And so, the family (minus the asshole father) comes to her rescue, sing-a-long-style.
If the title and hackneyed premise weren’t enough to inform the viewer that the film’s message is about the fascism inherent in the act of psychologizing marginalized peoples, don’t worry: Mental oversells the simple, but important idea through every line of dialogue. Virtually every character in the film accuses another of being mental (or something similar) a minimum of 20 times; anal-retentive neighbors are written in simply to act as caricatures of seemingly normal people with undiagnosed OCD; even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders makes an appearance as Shaz’s Bible and a trick weapon used to fight obnoxious baristas, conveniently read aloud when random characters exhibit traits remotely resembling a real mental illness. Just for kicks, one of the daughters actually does have schizophrenia, yet her untreated condition is approached with complete nonchalance by her family. It’s as if Hogan wanted to acknowledge the fact that health care for mental illness isn’t all for naught, and then bizarrely decided to make her the butt of jokes.
Mental attempts to score emotional punches through the same flighty, dysfunctional family dynamics Hogan so brilliantly scripted in Muriel’s Wedding, but everything is off-key here, except perhaps the music of the von Trapps being a stand-in for the perfect family Shirley dreams of. Unfortunately, the communal healing powers of kumbaya, a device Hogan so effectively employs throughout his films, makes scarce appearances in Mental, except when it’s convenient for narrative closure. Given the film’s garrulous multitude of characters, one wishes they would all just shut up and sing.