Director: P.J. Hogan
Stars: Toni Colette, Liev Schreiber
2 (out of 5) Globes
It’s been two decades since Toni Colette and director P.J. Hogan broke through together with “Muriel’s Wedding,” an ABBA-drenched ugly duckling tale that made her a modest and consistently employed name and got him on “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” But Americans are fickle with Aussie comedy; just ask Paul Hogan. Australian cinema exported here of late tends towards darker shades (“The Square,” “Animal Kingdom”). That would hypothetically make it a good time for a brassy reunion like “Mental,” if “Mental” wasn’t a reminder that “Muriel’s Wedding” — like “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and Baz Luhrmann films — wasn’t more than a little shrill and obnoxious.
Much like “Muriel’s Wedding” — in fact, exactly like “Muriel’s Wedding” — “Mental” concerns a messy and miserable family whose successful patriarch (Anthony LaPaglia) tries his best to ignore them, largely through prolonged absence. Mom (Rebecca Gibney), ignored and prone to “Sound of Music” outbursts, has a breakdown and winds up in the hospital. Unwilling to take care of his own kids, dad picks up a woman off the streets to play nanny: Shaz (Colette), a sassy, tell-it-like-it-is drifter who smokes rollies, carries a knife in her boot and totes around a belligerent pitbull.
It should be needless to say that Colette is a peerless actress, and she does her best to slip humanity into a character who comes off less like a lovable, pot-smoking Mary Poppins and more like Poochie from “The Simpsons.” Hogan stops short of introducing Shaz to the strains of “Bad to the Bone,” but does allow her to humiliate neighbors (Kerry Fox’s racist clean freak) and family members (Caroline Goodall’s doll-collecting passive-aggressive aunt), who would no doubt drop their monocles if they had them. But does Shaz perhaps have a tragic backstory that’s not remotely in keeping with the established tone?
“Mental” doesn’t have the extreme tonal problems of “Muriel’s,” in part because it’s protagonist is confidently, if too confidently, against feel-bad introspection. Like Shaz — based on one of Hogan’s friends, about whom he used to regale people with wacky anecdotes — it’s consistently and to a fault wired, and so enamored by its lead that it fails to develop other characters, including Liev Schrieber, flown in to do a spot-on Oz accent as a grizzled shark enthusiast. Schreiber gets too little screentime, possibly because he isn’t a free-spirit who preaches against non-conformity in the most conformist movie rebel fashion imaginable.