“Mental”: Free Spirits Down Under

Australian director PJ Hogan's Mental is a muddled but well-meaning comedy, though exactly what it means to do is not entirely clear. De-stigmatizing mental illness, probably? It's upfront about its love for The Sound of Music, opening with the matriarch of the Moochmore family (and admitted Von Trapp wannabe), Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), spinning and singing the oft-referenced film's title song in her yard, much to the mortification of her five daughters. When Shirley is committed, absentee patriarch Barry Moochmore (Antony LaPaglia, getting to use his native Australian accent) randomly picks up a fashionable-looking drifter named Shaz (Toni Collette) to act as an impromptu governess to the girls, all of whom are afraid that they too are mental. Shaz is a free spirit (who carries around a copy of the DSM-III, as free spirits will), the girls are lonely and regimented, and if you suspect that they may all have something to teach each other — and, hey, maybe it's the “normal” people who are really the crazy ones! — then you've seen movies other than The Sound of Music before. Mental relies a little too heavily on coincidence to move the plot, particularly regarding Liev Schreiber's Steve Irwin-type character, and the ending feels like a cop-out, even by the standards of obligatory happy endings.

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