“I tried to make MENTAL as politically incorrect as I could because I think I’m not a fan of political correctness, especially in comedy and especially not when it comes to this subject matter, mental illness, because political correctness, for me, is another way of saying, “We don’t want to talk about it.” Use the right words or we don’t want to talk about it, which means don’t talk about it.”
– P.J. Hogan, director of Mental, At The Movies, ABC1, 3rd October 2012.
All these things have gradually been eroded by political correctness, which seems to me to be about an institutionalised politeness at its worst. And if there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office might get in trouble one day for saying something that someone was a bit unsure about because they couldn’t decide whether it was sexist or homophobic or racist, it’s a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people that political correctness has made. It’s a complete lie that allows the right, which basically controls media now, and international politics, to make people on the left who are concerned about the way people are represented look like killjoys.
– Stewart Lee, someone who’s actually funny, “Heresy”, BBC Radio 4, 16th May 2007
Of course, upon actually watching Mental, it soon becomes extremely clear that Hogan has no real desire whatsoever to make un-PC fun of mental illness. Oh right, the story: a local politician in a picture perfect coastal Australian town gets into trouble when his long suffering wife suffers a mental breakdown and he’s forced to take care of his five young daughters, all of which seem to think they’re suffering from one kind of mental illness or another. His solution is to hire a babysitter, and he finds a babysitter by picking up a hippie hitch-hiker named Shaz (played by Toni Collette) who is probably not the most mentally stable person around either. Crazy!
Uh, no. The kids’ various mental illnesses are quickly dismissed as either attention-seeking or self-pity – apart from the one who actually is mentally ill, where her illness is solved halfway through with a simple “I’m on medication now!” – the mum’s illness is fairly obviously stress-related and so cured by a bit of hospital rest (well, Shaz does also go around assaulting everyone who was tormenting the mum, so the pressure’s off there), and the issues behind Shaz herself are treated sensitively and as something worthy of our sympathies, even if she does act like a stereotypical wacky nutbag for much of the film.
So basically, Hogan’s quote at the top of this post is just him getting the word out that his film is going to be packed with crazy hijinks that the stuffed shirts down at PC HQ are going to take offense at while regular folk – that means you, everybody – are just going to laugh and laugh and laugh. Meanwhile, back in the real world, his film goes out of its way to make sure its depiction of mental illness is the kind of thing no-one anywhere could possibly take offense at because in the world of the movie actual mental illness is treated seriously and with respect. While also being either a problem easily solved by tough love and wonder drugs, or the kind of thing that leads you to organise a synchronised menstrual cycle on your racist neighbour’s white couch or setting fire to a house by lighting your farts.
[Oh wait, doesn’t the racist neighbour have a mental breakdown after the couch incident? Because her cleanliness fetish and refusal to accept her daughter is a lesbian finally shatter her grip on sanity? Sounds about right, but because she’s nasty and mean and racist, her breakdown is… well, not exactly used for comedy, but shown to be the end result of her ugly yet extremely clean way of life. Presumably having her daughter then marry an aboriginal woman falls more under “natural justice” than “non-stop hilarity”.]
In much of the publicity for this film Hogan’s been talking up the fact this story is, to a large extent, autobiographical:
I should stop saying that it’s a story at all. It’s a documentary really.
Which may explain a lot of the problems here: he’s just too close to his story. For Mental to work as a comedy – it doesn’t, thanks to much of the comedy being the kind of broad, cartoony ocker material most of us had a gutful of back when Hogan and Collette made the far more successful Muriel’s Wedding – it needed… well, a lot of things. A central topic the writer / director actually wanted to wring laugh-out-loud comedy out of may have been a good place to start.
More specifically, while Shaz herself is an interesting character with a lot of potential for comedy, Hogan clearly felt that unless he set up a variety of cartoon villains (who come off as pale retreads of his Muriel’s Wedding suburban bitches) for her to slap around, her erratic knife-wielding antics might come across as less ha-ha and more call-the-police. And when he does get around to letting us know that there is a darker side to her antics, it feels like a): he’s talking down to the audience (she’s a complete stranger who wanders around carrying a knife and beating up shop staff: of course something isn’t quite right here) and b): the lightweight comedy we’ve been watching just got thrown out the window for something much darker. Not better, mind you, unless you find formerly comedic characters suddenly howling in emotional pain over issues the film has no intention of making fun of to be a great third act for a comedy.
Australian movie comedy is going through something of a golden age – quantity wise only, we stress – at the moment: look forward to upcoming reviews of The Wedding Party and the Housos movie when they hit screens over the next month or so. Chances are those films – like Kath & Kinderella and A Few Best Men and Mental before them – will also portray a sunlit suburban nightmare packed with shouty nutcases dressed in garish outfits. Mental at least had the potential to go somewhere a little different and be a little funnier than the usual: it’s hard to know whether to be saddened or resigned that it didn’t.