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Going 'Mental' And Enjoying The Ride

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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 P.J. 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 Shirley Moochmore (Rebecca Gibney) emerges from her suburban Australian house, warbling "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 weaselly bravura by Anthony LaPaglia, sporting 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 very own 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 she puts the girls to work. But she is, in most other areas, militantly anti-normal.

Collette plays every acting part as if she has nothing to lose — which is one thing director Hogan clearly treasures about her. Her Shaz has a bit of Auntie Mame, but this is no '60s-vintage 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 has never been as likable as he is here, with a thick black beard, 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 turnoff for some people in Mental. But I say embrace the broadness. Or, as the filmmakers might put it, "Go mental!"

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