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‘Mental’ defines normal with bold strokes of humor

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‘MENTAL’ ★★½

Shaz Toni Collette

Shirley Rebecca Gibney

Barry Anthony LaPaglia

Trevor Liev Schreiber

Dada Films presents a film written and directed by P.J. Hogan. Running time: 116 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at 600 N. Michigan.

Updated: May 1, 2013 1:54PM

Australian writer-director P.J. Hogan returns to the Coolangatta terrain of his “Muriel’s Wedding” for “Mental,” another comedy about non-conformity starring Toni Collette. Once again the setting is a coastal town (with Dolphin Heads replacing Porpoise Spit) where a suburban pol belittles his offspring and sends his wife to an asylum. Hogan upgrades the colloquialism “mental” from a clinically incorrect epithet to a badge of honor for outsiders.

“Muriel’s Wedding,” Hogan’s first feature, won an Audience Choice Award at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1994. With its coarse humor, “Mental” seems unlikely to win similar plaudits.

“Mental” opens with Shirley Moochmoore (Rebecca Gibney) belting out a number from “The Sound of Music” in her backyard. Her five daughters mobilize to minimize the embarrassment. Two more performances of tunes from that Rodgers and Hammerstein musical punctuate Hogan’s plot about family ideals. Shirley’s husband, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia), puts her in a “loony bin.” Spotting a hitchhiker with a dog, he hires this free spirit, who’s named Shaz (Toni Collette), to serve as a live-in caretaker so he can run for mayor and carry on his affairs.

Shaz knows “mental,” having spent time in the same institution that now houses Shirley. This free-spirited, pot-toking, knife-wielding nanny correctly diagnoses one of her charges as schizophrenic. On a therapeutic outing with the Moochmoore girls, Shaz puts their country in perspective: “Historically where have they always sent the loonies? As far away as possible. You can’t get any further away than Australia. We weren’t a penal colony, we was a lunatic asylum.”

Hogan directed “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997) and “Confessions of a Shopaholic” (2009) but did not script their casual lines about insanity. He did write “Muriel’s Wedding,” which was about his own distant dad, troubled mom and one of his sisters. Another sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia by a woman, just as the character Shaz does in the autobiographical “Mental.”

In an interview in the Australian, Hogan recalled his late father’s briefing: “He said, ‘Kids, nobody’s going to vote for a bloke whose wife’s crazy, so you’ve got to keep this quiet.’” And he did indeed hire a weird hitchhiker.

At a fall screening in Cairns, Australia, Hogan told the audience: “I have a schizophrenic sister, my brother suffers from bipolar [disorder] and I have two autistic children.” He also told an Australian site: “I wanted to be as politically incorrect as possible.”

He means well in “Mental.” Instead of stigma and pity, we get an uplifting spectrum of individualism. As Shaz says: “There’s no such thing as normal, there’s just different shades of mental.”

Bill Stamets is a free-lance writer and reviewer.

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