BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: mad Australians.

TALES told in asylums or about madness are nothing new, and some of cinema’s most famous moments have dabbled with these narrative settings. Rather than using it for horror, Australian film Cosi adapts it for comedy and musicality. It doesn’t quite work. A rather clichéd story of people overcoming adversity to prove themselves to people who are patronising to them, paradoxically, the film’s primary source of humour comes from laughing at the “mad” people.

Lewis (Ben Mendelsohn) ends up getting a directing job thanks to a fortunate land on the coin toss. But it isn’t the best location for the long out-of-work slacker – it’s an asylum full of a cast of pyromaniac sociopaths, painfully shy figures and megalomaniac dreamers. Roy (Barry Otto) in particular is a handful, and is desperate to put on a six-person show of Mozart’s comic opera Cosi fan tutte. Meanwhile Lewis’ deadbeat friend moves in, and has eyes for Lewis’ lawyer girlfriend (Rachel Griffiths). Meanwhile, in a parallel to the infidelity, misogyny and capriciousness of Mozart’s opera, Lewis finds himself drawn to one of the patients Julie (Toni Collette), a former drug addict who doesn’t really convincingly fit into the milieu.

At biggest fault is the relationship between Julie and Lewis. There is little attraction between the two, except that they are the two most attractive people working in the play. Also when a script relies on other characters (such as Roy) pointing out romances, then you know there’s nothing really there. Another problem is the characterisation. While the “mad” ones are eventually given their humanity – though this took a while, and required us to exploit them for laughter first – the “straight” characters are a bunch of self-obsessed losers. When Lewis’ friend gets his comeuppance we can have a chuckle because he’s beaten up by a patient. The film appeared to take on too much, and convincing characters suffered as a lot. That said, the acting itself works well, Otto and Collette demonstrating their class, while Mendolsohn does a solid job carrying the film. But the film leaves an awkward taste in its mouth, all the way past its patronising finale.