When I was establishing a time and a place at which I could view PJ Hogan’s latest film, Mental, I was appalled to see that there was a morning session earmarked for mothers and babies. Now, I am not normally one to crusade for child welfare but even I have to object to the facilitation of an indifferently received work by the name of Mental being a human’s earliest memory. Furthermore, just in case the bantam creature isn’t sufficiently bummed out by sitting in front of – or lying in front of, whichever it is they do – Mental, you can, I gather, take him or her along to a mother-and-baby session of Lawless. Anyway, once I was actually at my destination, and the other four audience members and I waited for things to get started and music was piped through the cinema, I confronted, once and for all, the fact that I truly hate every version ever recorded of the song ‘Hallelujah’.
Anyone who has seen Muriel’s Wedding could not fail not to be surprised by Mental, which is, of course, a yarn about a ‘crazy hothead’ – as I have seen her tagged in promotional material – by the name of Shaz (Toni Collette), who transforms the lives of what could loosely be called her charges; namely, a batch of sisters who have the improbable, if only too probable in a PJ Hogan film, surname of Moochmore. Suffice to say that action ensues, some of which involves highly coloured doughnuts, and a shark that, allegedly, consumed Harold Holt. This violent Australian-ess is, of course, a punishing motif throughout: one scene, has, in the space of approximately one minute, a Hills Hoist, a boomerang, and a personage eating Cheezels from her fingers. There is also, naturally, a surfeit of extreme close-ups, not to mention the presence of suburban gorgons who do not merely look grotesque but clean driveways with toothbrushes and love big dolls more than they do people, and who inspire their offspring to make such announcements as ‘Mum hates Abos’. There is also hilarity that includes a dog sticking its head up one of the gorgon’s skirts and the utterance of such lines as ‘I’m helping Jean widen her access road’. I was cautiously optimistic that I had slept through the scene that involves the lighting of methane gas but, no, there it was, as (SPOILER ALERT!) the big ending.
In short, with all the lurid colour, movement and noise, watching Mental is like being assaulted by a JB Hi-Fi. Now, it seems to me that one method by which more light and shade could have been in evidence would have been a reduction in the amount of mentalness. One of the Moochmore girls, Coral (Lily Sullivan) thinks she’s bipolar; another believes she hears the voices of characters from Lost in Space; their mother, Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) is obsessed with the Von Trapp family and thus sent to the, fairly garishly decorated, bin for a lengthy spell; Trevor Blundell (Liev Schreiber) – the proprietor of the allegedly Holt-eating shark – claims to have been in a lunatic asylum; and then we have the, frankly repulsive, Shaz herself. While all this is, in itself, much too much, it is during its constant slides into sentimentality that the movie really gets on the unbearable side. One moment, someone is bracingly telling someone else to get fucked or themselves being told to get fucked; the next, it’s all eyes filling with tears, unlikely declarations of affection, swelling piano music or renditions of songs from, naturally, The Sound of Music. Furthermore, Mental is one of those films whereby just when you think it’s all over, it starts up again, engendering a murderous fury in the viewer.
What I want to know is, and while also giving him an enormous hand for the most convincing portrayal of an Australian by a non-Australian since Donald Pleasence in Wake In Fright, what the hell was Liev Schreiber thinking when he signed on the dotted line? Australian actors who have succeeded overseas, and so are not trotting out the ‘I really want to tell our stories/yes, I went to Hollywood but it was too much of a freaky scene for a regular Joe like me!’ baloney for the popular press, have, if not a grand tradition, at least a tradition of returning to these shores to appear in utter tripe. It is, on the other hand, unsettling to see an American appearing in Mental, just it was to hear about Rosanna Arquette and Sandra Bernhard popping up in the similarly strikingly titled Wendy Cracked a Walnut and Dallas Doll, respectively. I only hope and pray that Schreiber did not make the decision to appear in Mental because he is romantically involved with an Australian actress who is, after all, actually English.
And all this talk of romance leads me to the question of why didn’t Hogan’s wife, the extremely talented Jocelyn Moorhouse, a producer of Mental, try to reign in all the horror? Well, I would guess that this was partly because of Mental’s staggering similarity to Muriel’s Wedding, which, was, if nothing else, a hit. For example, the films are not only both set in fictitious Queensland towns – Porpoise Spit and Dolphin Heads, yet – they each feature a cruel, absentee politician father, who is unfaithful to his lady wife with a hard-faced piece, has been thwarted in his ambitions and believes, entirely correctly, that his children are useless; a dim-witted but well-meaning mother who stands in contrast to other characters’ mothers who endlessly ball-bust their daughters; vituperative, tanned girls; the rakish presence of a young man with bleached blond hair; violently hued comestibles; a spot of rape humour; the incorporation of racist remarks from older Australians; the plentiful use of music that has been central to the existence of enormously successful tribute acts and theatrical experiences that revolve around the, thankfully unfashionable, activity of the singalong; and the talking-up of non-conformity, which seems ironic, given how much Mental conforms to Muriel’s Wedding, reminding me of when young people would see fit to demonstrate their non-conformity by dressing up as Boy George.
I have to tell you that the single biggest problem I have had with Muriel’s Wedding for nearly the past two decades is Muriel herself, given that she is unintelligent, unfeeling, an embezzler and a liar. I would mind none of this, mind you, were she sparkier. I don’t blame Toni Collette for Muriel’s sullen dullness, by the way, given that this fine actress may as well have been asked to play a steamed pudding. It is rare that I’ve seen anyone, whether in fiction or in life, believe with Muriel’s total correctness that they are stupid and useless, although I will give her some credit for having worked in a video shop. Even as I hand out this credit, though, I should point out that the shop in question was Darlinghurst’s Video Drama, where, in real life, you practically had to come across with a souvenir from the Island of Atlantis, a written confession from Jack the Ripper and a personal appearance by Bigfoot before they’d let you become a member, so I cannot imagine they would have employed the incompetent and dishonest Muriel. I appreciate that sympathetic comedy characters are supposed to be ‘low status’, but there’s low status and then there’s apparently having an IQ of less than 100, as per Bridget Jones in her cinematic incarnation, another character to whom the general public seems mystifyingly keen to relate. It is disorienting when Muriel’s best friend, the relatively interesting Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), says that in Muriel’s married state, she is half the person she used to be – well, exactly what was so great about this turnip before? Why did Rhonda take a shine to her in the first place, back when Muriel was mooching around a holiday resort, being a stalker? I would also like to know why Muriel’s husband of convenience decides, out of the clear blue sky, that she’s terrific to be around, given that a feature wall would have been a more vital addition to his household. Interestingly, however, one of the comments on YouTube regarding the scene in Muriel’s Wedding in which a pretty blonde tormentor (Sophie Lee) is taken down a peg reads: ‘I love scenes like this when the so called popular people get put in their place! Popular people suck!’. I can only imagine that this point of view is a major reason why Muriel’s Wedding has struck such a chord – it may be less that its fans actively like Muriel than that they hate her foes.
Frankly, when it comes to Mental, I was, except for his having been a date rapist, in almost total sympathy with the unfeeling father, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia), just as I was in almost total sympathy with the unfeeling father, Bill (Bill Hunter), in Muriel’s Wedding, given that, by and large, I wouldn’t have wanted to be stuck with either of those packs of idiots either. I say ‘by and large’, though, because Coral is actually vaguely appealing, seeming as she does to have some measure of sensitivity and intelligence. Given Mental’s similarity to Muriel’s Wedding, it would be understandable if PJ Hogan were feeling confused and hurt that it has not been similarly embraced. Yes, he ripped himself off so much that he should have been suing himself for plagiarism but at least he managed to give us a more appealing Muriel this time around.