Author: PJ Hogan
Writer’s Potential: 3
A family is turned upside down when a woman is committed to an insane asylum and her husband brings home a hitchhiker to serve as nanny to his children.
CORAL MOOCHMORE (16) is convinced she’s schizophrenic. At age 13, she attempted suicide by jumping off the veranda of her home and landed on father BARRY’s brand new car, knocking him unconscious. After consulting with the DSM-IV, Coral believes the only symptom of schizophrenia she lacks is voices. Her sisters (LEANN, KAYLEEN, JANE, and MICHELLE) tease her because they each show more evidence of mental illness (particularly Michelle, who hears voices in her head) than Coral does. Meanwhile, mother SHIRLEY is going insane in her own right, because of Barry’s frequent absences from family gatherings and the children running her ragged. She wishes they could be more like the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music, or at least like her seemingly perfect neighbor, NANCY. Everyone in the town of Dolphin’s Head thinks Shirley is either stupid or crazy, including Shirley’s sister, DORIS, who treats Shirley more like a child than an adult. Doris suggests Shirley go shopping to cure what ails her, so Shirley buys furniture and major appliances—so many that they crowd the house and end up on the lawn.
Meanwhile, Coral works at a local water park whose main attraction is a shark show featuring the corpse of a shark that allegedly killed a prime minister. Coral questions her boss, TREVOR, about whether or not it’s true. Trevor tells her to shine a flashlight through the shark. She does—and sees a dismembered human head inside the shark’s body. When Barry finally comes home and finds all the furniture, Barry has her committed at an insane asylum. The girls run Barry even more ragged than Shirley. While driving home from work, he spots a “normal-looking” hitchhiker (SHAZ) walking along the road with a terrifying dog. He offers Shaz a ride and brings her to the house to take care of the girls. Shaz quickly reveals herself to be more insane than Shirley—frequently cawing like a crow and rambling incoherently. The girls, particularly Coral, hate her. However, Shaz’s brash, in-your-face attitude wins them over when she starts insulting and barking orders at Nancy and Doris.
Coral takes her friend, TROUT, to see the shark show after closing time. She flashes her light into the shark, which freaks Trout out—but he realizes it’s just a rubber mask inside the shark. He kisses her, which leads to some heavy petting, which almost leads to sex—but Trevor jabs Trout with a prod, fearing he was attacking Coral. Trevor takes Coral out to dinner to warn her against males. Coral says she doesn’t mind, since she’s going insane. Trevor tells her he came close to insanity, after his daughter died and wife lost her mind. Coral sympathizes, mentioning Shirley is in the loony bin. At the loony bin, Shirley tells her therapist (unseen at first) about her history with Barry: he date-raped her, she got pregnant with Coral, and the happy ending is that he called for another date. The therapist is revealed to the audience as Shaz, who gives Shirley a lot of hackneyed advice about how to cope with her problems. She explains that there’s “defensive coping,” which is what Shirley’s doing, and “offensive coping,” which is what she should do. Another patient, SANDRA, recognizes Shaz and wonders why she’s impersonating a doctor. Shirley is too out of it to realize Shaz is deranged.
Shaz returns to the Moochmore home and drags the girls out of bed in the middle of the night. She forces them to climb a mountain, and once they reach the precipice, she gleefully announces that they can do anything, because whenever things get rough, they can remember they climbed this mountain. The girls discuss their feelings of mental illness. Shaz, who also has a copy of the DSM-IV, observes that everyone in their neighborhood is insane, if one went by clinical definitions. She observes that, although legend has it that Australia was formed as a penal colony, the truth is that it’s where the British sent its insane. Shaz takes the girls to a local bakery and tells them she stubbornly refuses to understand “conformity,” and as a result she’s being pursued by scientists. She needs the girls to form a protective army against the forces who want her. The snooty girls who work at the bakery, who once insulted Shirley and browbeat her into buying food she doesn’t want, try to pull the same shenanigans on Shaz, but she insults them and points out they suffer from “Sadistic Personality Disorder.” Then, she slams her DSM-IV shut on one of the girls’ faces. All the girls are impressed—except Coral, who is too crippled by low self-esteem to follow Shaz’s free-spirited advice. Shaz tells Coral she once threatened a doctor with a knife after he told her she only had six months to live. He took back his proclamation, and she lived longer than six months. Coral remains unsure.
Detectives with a very good description of Shaz come to the Moochmore home, looking for her. While Shaz hides, the girls give a false description of Shaz to throw them off her scent. Shaz brings Sandra and the girls to Nancy’s house, where they torment her by throwing boomerangs through her windows and mucking up her extremely tidy house and yard. Nancy overreacts, violently throwing them out of the house and burning all of her furniture, which results in her being sent to the asylum. Coral takes Trout to the shark show in the middle of the night. While they have sex, both Trevor and Shaz prowl around the couple—and Trevor recognizes Shaz. He tries to kill her, but she flees. Shaz drags Barry home from work by implying someone has died—turns out, she’s talking about the chicken she roasted. Barry is enraged. He treats Shaz horribly, so in the middle of the night she sits on his chest with her frightening dog growling at him as she shouts about his abuse and neglect of his children. Shaz forces Barry into the crawlspace under the house to fend for himself. Down there, they find Michelle, totally disoriented from the voices in her head. Coral realizes, based on Shaz’s ranting, that she was married to Trevor. Shaz tells Coral that Trevor’s full of shit—he tells everyone both she and their daughter died, but she’s alive, and their daughter’s being held by Trevor against his will. Once things calm down, Barry calls a psychiatrist to help Michelle.
Doris discovers her expensive doll collection is missing. Shaz announces she’s blackmailing Doris—she’ll return the dolls if Doris goes to the mental hospital and reassures Shirley. Doris does so, ineptly, under Shaz’s supervision. Barry shows up at the hospital, surprised to see Shaz and Doris there, and even more surprised to learn Shirley thinks Shaz is a doctor. Meanwhile, Coral and Shaz spy on Trevor, figuring out his routine, trying to identify where he’s keeping Shaz’s daughter and when the best time to get her would be. Now back at home, Shirley is surprised and terrified to find five black, shadowy figures surround her in the kitchen—it turns out to be the girls, prepared to go after Shaz’s daughter. Just then, the police pull up, led by Barry and Doris. They’re after Shaz. Shaz and the girls flee in her car, with Doris’s doll collection, which they toss out the window. Coral tries to convince Shaz to stop. She’s learned from Trevor that the daughter, Kim, died of a drug overdose. Shaz insists the shark at her—the one he claims ate the prime minister. Coral accuses Shaz of being a con artist, going from town to town, propping up damaged people so she can use them for her own gain before moving on, and now that she’s finally found Trevor, she’ll just betray them and move on. The other girls refuse to help Shaz, so she goes by herself. She goes to the shark show and attempts to retrieve the shark. Before she can, the police arrive and arrest her. In the hospital, Shaz accuses the girls of betraying her, but Shirley confesses she told the police where to find her.
Trevor fires Coral. He says that he hopes Shaz ends up killing herself, which will make everyone’s lives much easier. Coral is horrified. Shirley goes to see Barry at work and discovers he’s cheating on her. She’s enraged and leaves him. Coral drugs Trevor, and Trout ties him up and keeps watch. He explains that Coral and the girls went off to break Shaz out of the hospital and steal the shark. Shirley tries to delicately convince the nurses to release Shaz. When they won’t, she and the girls sing “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music, and Shaz hears them and comes running. Trevor breaks free of his restraints and zaps Trout with the shark prod. Shaz and the girls try to load the shark tank on the back of a rented truck, but the hydraulic lift can’t support the weight and it rolls away. They chase after the tank, just as Trevor arrives. He tells Shaz to stay away from the tank, and when she won’t, he shoots it, shattering the glass and releasing the formaldehyde. Trevor ties a rope around the shark’s head and attaches it to the truck’s winch, but everything goes sideways and both Trevor and Shaz are pulled into the ocean, along with the shark, which drags them down further.
Some time later, a distraught Barry starts randomly singing “Edelweiss” during a campaign fundraiser. He’s laughed at by donors, but Shirley and the girls show up and join him in a rousing chorus. Shaz mysteriously reappears in Doris’s home, standing with her pants around her knees, aiming her rear end at Doris’s most treasured doll, a lighter held beneath it. She unleashes a fart, and the blue flame destroys all of her dolls. Shaz and her dog run out through the countryside.
Like the character Shaz, Mental is an incoherent mess. The scattershot story is exceptionally rambling and unfocused, the characters are overloaded with cloying quirks, and the frequent jarring tonal shifts don’t exactly help the script feel like a cohesive whole. As written, it merits a pass.
The story is a complete disaster, chaotic both structurally and tonally. The writer seems to have decided he wants to write a script about the Shaz character, but he doesn’t have any idea where to go with the story, so it just ambles in whatever direction seems interesting or amusing. This never jells into a coherent story. It’s not even clear who the main character is supposed to be—it starts out focused firmly on Coral, then moves on to Shirley until she’s institutionalized, then moves on to Shaz, then flips back to Coral. This is not a case of a layered ensemble each getting roughly equal time. This is purely a lack of focus.
The problems start in what can generously be called the first act. The Moochmores and their many quirks are introduced, but none of the characters’ actions, or their reasons for their actions, are ever really clear. Nothing anyone does has any real motivation, and none of the events depicted has any dramatic thrust. It’s simply a series of events, not building toward anything, not generating any suspense—and not even really generating any laughs. Granted, this is a comedy about mentally ill people, but the fact that it’s a comedy doesn’t forgive the lack of structure, and the fact that the characters are mentally ill doesn’t mean everything they do is arbitrary. There should, at the very least, be a consistent internal logic for the characters’ actions, even if they strike the audience as laughably insane.
Things don’t improve once Shaz hits the scene in the second act. The writer clearly wants her to be a memorable comic creation, but like the Moochmores in the first act, everything she does is frustratingly random and unmotivated. Worse than the Moochmores, much of what she does is incredibly creepy (wielding knives, siccing dogs on people, tearing apart others’ homes, forcing the children to climb mountains in the middle of the night, breaking into a mental hospital and pretending to be a doctor, etc.), which would cause any audience member to wonder about Barry’s sanity—but strangely, the writer never questions that. Barry picking up a cartoonishly insane hitchhiker and leaving them alone with his five underage children is perfectly acceptable in the mind of the writer—until he changes his mind late in the second act and decides Barry is neglectful and evil.
The story pretty much peters out in the third act, as the writer scrambles to tie up loose ends that aren’t all that loose, and aren’t all that interesting. He attempts to bring some pathos to Shaz’s character by chalking her insanity up to the death of her child, as well as backtracking to explain all those unclear, seemingly unmotivated actions in the first act, but that doesn’t undo the damage of how frustrating and confusing those early scenes are. The writer has already lost the audience, so all these long overdue explanations of weird behavior have arrived far too late to really matter.
The frantic pace and slipshod execution of the story does a lot of damage to the characters. Beyond the general lack of motivation and the writer’s apparent uncertainty about who the protagonist and antagonist are, each character is so overloaded with quirks, actual personalities fail to form. They’re just walking wackiness machines, doing and saying weird things that are supposed to be funny, but it’d all be a lot funnier if anything they did made even a tiny bit of sense. Coral and Shaz receive the most development, by virtue of the fact that they’re in the most scenes, but nobody—including these two—really seems to grow or change as a result of the events in the story. The family is brought together at the end through a lazy musical outburst, but Shaz isn’t exactly Marry Poppins. Her impact on the family, and the family’s impact on her, is never made clear.