"Mental" packs enough lowbrow laughs to scrape by as a crowdpleaser for undiscriminating auds.

Cut from virtually the same autobiographical cloth as “Muriel’s Wedding,” but stitched with a far more jagged hand and encased in an even colder heart, “Mental” reps a mediocre return to grotesque Australian suburban comedy by scripter-helmer P.J. Hogan. Toplining “Muriel” star Toni Collette as a tough-as-nails stranger who becomes a life-changing nanny to the five daughters of a dysfunctional family, the pic packs enough lowbrow laughs to scrape by as a crowdpleaser for undiscriminating auds. World-preemed as the Melbourne fest’s closer, “Mental” should perform OK on its Oz release Oct. 4, but looks unlikely to generate much offshore excitement.

Pic’s U.K. rollout is skedded for Dec. 7; North American release details are pending.

Dressed like a cross between a hippie and a hooker, Shaz (Collette) is plucked from the street by Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia), the mayor of Queensland coastal town Dolphin Heads. Barry needs a nanny for his children pronto after having placed his mentally unbalanced wife, Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), in psychiatric care.

A cheating rat and uncaring father who can’t put the right names to the faces of his daughters Coral (Lily Sullivan), Jane (Bethany Whitmore), Michelle (Malorie O’Neill), Leanne (Nicole Freeman) and Kayleen (Chelsea Bennett), Barry dumps a willing Shaz in the middle of his chaotic house and disappears for long stretches.

Making an amusing first impression as a bong-smoking nanny with a long-bladed knife tucked into her boots, Shaz immediately discovers Shirley’s mental problems have rubbed off profoundly on the girls, each of whom proudly claims to be suffering from her own particular affliction.

Shaz’s answer, and the film’s comic raison d’etre, is to blame the crushing forces of conformity surrounding the Moochmore girls, and become their mental-health therapist. To that end, Shaz launches a fitfully funny campaign to expose the hypocrisy of easy targets, including clean-freak neighbor Nancy (Kerry Fox) and Shirley’s jealous sister, Doris (Caroline Goodall), whose hobby is making creepy life-size dolls of children.

Hogan knows how to stage physical comedy, and dares auds to laugh at scenes such as Shaz and the girls menstruating in unison on Nancy’s white couch. But much of the humor is driven by a savage near-hatred of everything suburban, which frequently undermines its own effectiveness, and poses a barrier to auds engaging emotionally with the central character and the wounded youngsters she’s taken under her wing.

Little seen in the pic’s first half, second-billed Liev Schreiber features prominently in the later stages as Trevor, a rough-hewn Aussie shark hunter and amusement-park operator who shares a dark past with Shaz. Just about the only down-to-earth character in a gallery of grotesques, Trevor brings a much-needed shot of reality to the proceedings prior to an unwieldy finale involving his prize display and a musical number.

Donald M. McAlpine’s widescreen photography of candy-colored costumes and production design is first-class. The rest of the technical package is on the money.

Mental

U.S.-Australia

Production

A Universal (in Australia/U.K.) release of a Screen Australia presentation of a Zucker Prods., Story Bridge Films production in association with Screen Queensland, Screen NSW. (International sales: Arclight Films, Sydney.) Produced by Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Todd Fellman, Jocelyn Moorehouse. Executive producers, Gary Hamilton, Bryce Menzies, Lee Soon Kie. Co-producer, Sean Gesell. Co-executive producers, Roger Savage, Jill Bilcock. Directed, written by P.J. Hogan.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Donald M. McAlpine; editor, Jill Bilcock; music, Michael Yezerski; executive music supervisor, Bonnie Greenberg; music supervisors, Bernard Galbally, Jane Jacob, production designer, Graham 'Grace' Walker; art director, Richard Hobbs; costume designer, Tim Chappel; sound (Dolby Digital), Roger Savage, Chris Goodes; visual effects, Robot; stunt coordinator, Chris Anderson; line producer, Yvonne Collins; associate executive producer, John Sim; assistant director, Phil Jones; second unit camera, Ben Nott; casting, Christine King. Reviewed at Melbourne Film Festival (closer), Aug. 18, 2012. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Rebecca Gibney, Kerry Fox, Caroline Goodall, Deborah Mailman, Lily Sullivan, Sam Clark, Hayley Magnus, Malorie O'Neill, Nicole Freeman, Chelsea Bennett, Bethany Whitmore, Holly Buchanan.

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