Australian audiences have a real love/hate relationship with the local product - if it's not a smash like Muriel's Wedding or Babe, it's lucky to get a swift burial in a shallow grave (remember Back of Beyond? Don't worry - no-one else does). There's not much room for moderate success in the world of Australian film, and those movies that avoid the three-day cinema runs of a Billy's Holiday without creating the box office queues of a Priscilla, Queen of the Desert are left to fade from the memory without making any real impression on the Australian psyche. It'd be a shame if Cosi (directed by Mark Joffe) fell into that trap, because while it may not be the best Australian film of the 90's, it's far from the type of comedy where the only laugh you get is when you leave the cinema and see other people buying tickets for it.
When Lewis (Ben Mendelsohn) gets his first directing job, he's too happy to be working to worry that the job is in a centre for the mentally ill. But right from the very begining he's got troubles: At the urgings of Roy (Barry Otto) the patients don't want to put on the variety show the staff planned - they want to perform Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte. With a cast that includes the junkie Julie (Toni Collette); the repressed Ruth (Pamela Rabe); mentally absent musician Zac (Colin Hay); a manic woman who falls rapidly in love with Lewis named Cherry (Jacki Weaver); the incredably shy and nervious Henry (Paul Chubb); and the pyromaniac bogan Doug (David Wenham), Lewis has enough troubles without trying to translate an Italian opera into English for a group laughed by the hospitals head nurse (Colin Friels) just because "none of them can sing, and the orchestra's comatose". Add to this problems on the home front between his law student girlfriend Lucy (Rachel Griffiths) and his arty sponger mate Nick (Aden Young), and you'd think that Lewis'd be happy to use any one of the endless set-backs as an excuse to give it away, but he struggles on throughout to bring his actors dream to life.
Or at least, that's what it'd like you to think. The biggest problem this film has is that it all seems a bit rushed, and by packing so much in there's never room to develop what happens in depth. Lewis' relationship problems are so hastially sketched that they never pull us in, and the obstacles between him and the play's completion pop up in one scene and are overcome in the next without any real sense of tension. Still, this is primarily a comedy, and on that score this works as well as any recent Australian film: The jokes are good and there's plenty of them, the characters all work, even the ones who aren't insane, and any movie that has a rap song that rhymes "doggy-style" with "paedophile" definately isn't afraid to stoop for a laugh.
Mendelsohn is getting a bit old to play a uni student (here he looks like a young Lance Hendrikson) but his acting skills are never in doubt, and there isn't an actor here who gives anything less than a fine performance. Sure, a lot of them get to be over-the-top nutcases, but even those roles are tempered with a touch of humanity, while those with more normal roles - especially Young with a very smarmy character (think young used car salesman), and the excellent Collette - bring them off with both style and substance. It may be a bit all over the place to make its point about the battle of the sexes, but on the whole this is a comedy that'll get you laughing all the way through and hit or not, there's not enough of those to go round.