Perhaps the most concentrated display of female hysteria since Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women—only without that movie’s redeeming self-awareness—the latest from P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) sets down in a small Australian town where everyone seems to be off their rocker (but only some of them know it). When a mother of five girls is packed off to a mental hospital, their father (Anthony LaPaglia) plucks kooky Toni Collette off the street to care for them—never mind that the newly hired help is clearly playing with less than a full deck herself.
The kids, already branded as freaks in their backstabbing backwater, fear inheriting their mom’s instability, but in this insufferably antic cosmos, there’s no way to separate the mad from the sane. Our heroine’s crackpot theory is that, rather than convicts, Australia was settled by lunatics as part of a massive lab experiment; successful celebrities like Kylie Minogue act as “control mice.” (Russell Crowe is a borderline case.) Hogan’s own science project has no such controls, although the clan’s eldest daughter (Lily Sullivan) is a small center of calm amid the chaos. Once a scarred shark hunter (Liev Schreiber) enters the fray, the film’s tone shifts from madcap to maudlin, and the narrative from being merely grating to actually galling. Artistic inspiration can be close to madness, but Mental is just plain nuts.
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