Cosi (Australia, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A curious thing happened to Cosi on its way to a United States release -- it got lost. Or at least temporarily misplaced. Miramax Films began showing trailers for this movie more than a year ago, but the opening date was repeatedly delayed until just about everyone had forgotten about it. Now, eleven months after it premiered in Australia, Cosi is finally set to open. Unfortunately, it's not really worth the wait. The film is like a half-baked amalgamation of A Midwinter's Tale and Shine, and doesn't excel as either a comedy or a drama.

The story centers around Lewis (Ben Mendelsohn), a twenty-something Australian who has trouble holding down a job. His latest venture is to direct a play, an effort that is encouraged by his best friend (Aden Young) and his lover (Rachel Griffiths). Only he's not a very good director ("He couldn't direct a nymphomaniac to a stag night"), and this isn't an ordinary production. His task is to helm an offbeat adaptation of a Mozart opera, Cosi Fan Tutte, that will be performed by the patients at a psychiatric hospital. Following an audition process that isn't as funny or inventive as that from either A Midwinter's Tale or Waiting for Guffman, Lewis has his cast, which is comprised of the usual suspects. There's Roy (Barry Otto), a manic with a thirst for stage exposure; Julie (Toni Collette), a recovering drug addict; Ruth (Pamela Rabe), a painfully shy woman with suicidal tendencies; Cherry (Jacki Weaver), an aggressive and potentially-violent woman; and Henry (Paul Chubb), a failed lawyer.

The main theme relates to Lewis discovering meaning in his life through his interaction with the patients and how they, in turn, learn to respect and value themselves. While there's potential in that story, director Mark Joffe (The Efficiency Expert) paints everything with broad strokes. The characters are all types and their circumstances are predictable. The shallow script, adapted by Louis Nowra from his play, proceeds in a disappointingly straightforward fashion.

Because Cosi's dramatic side is so weak, it's up to the comedy to sustain the film. However, while the movie delivers a few hearty laughs here and there, the humor is inconsistent. The most interesting aspect of the plot -- a subtext that asks questions about female fidelity (the theme of Cosi Fan Tutte) and male double standards -- is left largely unexplored. A feeble attempt is made to address these issues as they apply to Lewis' life, but the result isn't satisfying.

The cast is populated by recognizable faces from Australian cinema. Ben Mendelsohn (The Efficiency Expert) does an adequate job as Lewis. Even though he has the most screen time, his low-key performance allows him to be easily eclipsed. This tendency to fade into the background makes it difficult for us to get a handle on Lewis. On the other hand, Barry Otto (the father in Strictly Ballroom) is anything but subdued. His overwrought turn as Roy allows us to better appreciate the nuances of Geoffrey Rush's interpretation of David Helfgott in Shine. Meanwhile, Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding) is delightful, although underused. Two things that we learn about her in Cosi are that she's a lot more svelte than Muriel's Wedding led us to believe and she's got a great singing voice (her rendition of "Don't Dream It's Over" is used during the end credits). Rachel Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding), Aden Young (Hotel de Love), Pamela Rabe (Sirens), and Colin Friels (Angel Baby) all have significant supporting roles.

Despite its numerous shortcomings, Cosi contains several magical moments. One occurs on a darkened stage when Lewis and Julie, their profiles silhouetted against a lighter background, tentatively kiss. Another happens late in the film, as Julie sings "Stand By Me" to an enraptured audience. There's also a lengthy post-credits sequence, which, in addition to offering one of the film's funniest gags, presents perhaps the strangest conclusion to a movie that I've ever witnessed. If you choose to see Cosi, do not leave until the end credits are over.

When it comes to filmed versions of behind-the-scenes amateur theatrical productions, Cosi is a weak entry. It's a good-natured film, I suppose, but its attempts to inspire often seem more manipulative than uplifting. Maybe the reason for Miramax's release delay is that, recognizing how mediocre Cosi is, they hoped that, like an average wine, it might improve if it was left sitting on the shelf. Clearly, that hasn't happened.

Cosi (Australia, 1996)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1997-02-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1