Friday, July 5, 2013

FI: Mental

Australia, 2012
Written and Directed by P. J. Hogan

Film, we're told, is a language, and even the most trifling films can tell us something, even if it's not so much in what they mean to say as in what they fail to say. Mental is a personal project for writer/director P. J. Hogan, and he combines several real-life incidents from his family's past to tell the story of a dysfunctional family failing to thrive in the repressive Australian suburbs. The mother (Rebecca Gibney) breaks into song and lives in a fantasy world, shopping for loads of furniture she somehow imagines her husband has won. The father (Anthony LaPaglia) is a philandering, never-home politician. The five children, all daughters, each imagine themselves to have a constellation of mental disorders, some of which may be legitimate. After their father has their mother committed, he picks up a hitchhiker named Shaz (Toni Collette) to act as the children's nanny—if this decision weren't legitimately lifted from Hogan's life, it'd be too mad to be believed.

Shaz acts as the agent of chaos through whom the film subverts the status quo of who is actually "mental" in modern society. This is a message we've seen countless times, through a succession of "holy fool" characters (Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road springs to mind), and the film is self-aware enough to subvert its own subversion more than once, especially through some late revelations. But the problems, and there are many, pile up from the start. The world the film creates is one of mild magical realism, which is fine, but it is rarely grounded in characters who you believe in and/or care about. Once the fun of watching Collette (in full-on United States of Tara–mode) and Liev Schrieber (as a grizzled shark hunter) fades, there's little left to make them seem like real people. As quirk piles on quirk, we're left to wonder what if anything all of this sound and fury signifies. The film seems to close on something that suggests the power of family love as a cure-all or binding agent, until a gratuitous final scene essentially farts in our faces. Hogan may have had some message in mind, but he lost it in the hodgepodge of cuckoo behavior that shifts the film's tone into unworkable territory. Of course we're all mad here—is playing that madness like a joke really the best way to broach the topic?

No comments:

Post a Comment