“Cosi” is a fast, funny and cleverly acted film version of the Louis Nowra play of the same name, which was a hit Down Under a couple of years ago. With Barry Otto re-creating his stage role with a performance of sustained hilarity, and currently hot femme stars Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths, both alumni of “Muriel’s Wedding,” giving terrif performances, this putting-on-a-show rib-tickler looms as a big success in Oz, where it opens Thursday, with excellent chances in selected markets elsewhere.
Only question mark here is whether, in the mid-’90s, a comedy about inmates of a mental asylum will generate negative vibes. This certainly wasn’t the case with the stage production, which Nowra has closely followed in his screenplay, and there’s no question that auds are being asked to laugh with these eccentric characters, not at them.
Setting is a Sydney asylum where Lewis (Ben Mendelsohn), an amiable drifter who hasn’t achieved much in life, is hired by administrator Kirner (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) to carry out therapy with a group of patients interested in the dramatic arts. Lewis lives with Lucy (Griffiths), his law-student girlfriend, but has reluctantly agreed to share their small house (which is next door to a slaughterhouse where pigs are turned into bacon) with a mutual friend, Nick (Aden Young), a pretentious actor-director who is willing to advise the naive Lewis on matters theatrical.
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Anticipating that his work will involve staging a simple variety show with a handful of inmates, Lewis is taken aback when hyperactive long-term patient RoyMore film reviews, pages 54, 62
(Otto) forces him into agreeing to stage a production of Mozart’s opera “Cosi Fan Tutte,” despite the fact that none of the inmates can sing or speak Italian. Lewis goes along, and auditions hopefuls (including funny cameos by Greta Scacchi and Paul Mercurio) before settling on his cast.
In addition to Roy, who is to play the Duke, the ensemble consists of the childlike Henry (Paul Chubb); Ruth (Pamela Rabe), a plain woman who’s suicidal after being abandoned by her husband; Cherry (Jacki Weaver), a plump, aging nympho; Doug (David Wenham), an unstable, foul-mouthed pyromaniac; and drug addict Julie (Collette), committed by her unsympathetic parents, who turns out to have a sweet singing voice. The spaced-out Zac (Colin Hay) is placed incharge of the music.
Rehearsals with this decidedly motley group commence, with the gabby Roy constantly badgering Lewis with unwanted advice, Cherry coming on to him, Doug proving difficult to control, Henry hopelessly withdrawn and Ruth dreadfully nervous. Julie is the most self-controlled of the group. In an effort to inspire his “actors,” Lewis takes them to see Nick perform in a grimly pretentious production of “Diary of a Madman,” which impresses Roy.
Inevitably, the ambitious enterprise designed to climax in a one-off performance in the presence of the Minister of Health, runs into a series of setbacks, most seriously when Doug burns down the rehearsal hall and is placed in solitary.
Lewis agrees to take his place in the opera, but is plagued with suspicions that Nick and Lucy, who are left too much alone, are being unfaithful to him.
Trailing echoes of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,””Cosi” is packed with laughs and pathos and is expertly directed by Mark Joffe (“The Efficiency Expert”). There may not be too many surprises in the way the almost classical plot develops, but there are enough genuine laughs along the way to keep audiences happy, and Joffe’s comedy timing is impeccable.
In what’s basically an ensemble piece, each cast member delivers the goods, with Mendelsohn an attractive straight man in the lead. Otto’s cheerfully bombastic, over-the-top performance is a delight down to the smallest detail (the way he walks around holding up his trousers, for instance), and Collette has a show-stopping moment when, during an interruption in the production, she abandons Mozart to sing, simply and sweetly, “Stand by Me.” Weaver, Rabe (another holdover from the stage production), Chubb, Wenham and Hay as the cast members, as well as Young and Griffiths as the outsiders, are all in top form.
Also registering strongly is Colin Friels in the small but important role of the institution’s security guard. Friels stepped in when Bruno Lawrence, who started the role, was unable to continue because of terminal illness; pic is dedicated to Lawrence.
Producers Richard Brennan and Timothy White have come up with a colorful package that benefits from superb sets by Chris Kennedy and fluid camerawork by Ellery Ryan. Stephen Endelman’s music score is fine, too.
“Cosi” hits the button. It’s warm, generous, sentimental and expert entertainment.