'Benny & Joon': long on cuteness, painfully short on perspective

April 16, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Benny & Joon" is like a '50s breakfast cereal: sugar-coated nuggets of pure sugar. Just add sugar, and eat.

Its nuclear-powered sweetness aside, it's of a small but insistent genre that holds that mental illness isn't illness at all, it's "otherness," or "creativity" or even an appropriate response to an insane world. Dysfunctional people aren't to be nursed to health but treated as shamans since they see things more clearly, somehow -- that is, when they're not screaming violently on buses or setting fires.

In short, it treats the mentally ill like some sort of amusing alien species, not merely sentimentalizing their incredible anguish and pain but trivializing it out of all scale. If you can get past that, however, boy, will you be disappointed.

Actually, the title characters aren't the girlfriend and the boyfriend but the brother and the sister. The site is blue-collar Spokane, Wash., where Benny (Aidan Quinn) runs an ironic auto repair shop (ironic, because each of his employees is "cute" in that in-your-face, hey-look-me-over movie way). He has selflessly given his life to his sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), clearly a dysfunctional, who, following a brutal childhood trauma, sits home and paints all day but cannot handle the slightest stress (a bus ride, say) without debilitating panic or incendiary impulses. Benny has no life except love, duty and responsibility; naturally, he's the villain.

This is one of those films in which every character has been given a wry bit of business to establish his "quirkiness," all so precious it grows progressively irritating. There's no baseline of normality to give you your moorings; you feel like you're in some 19th-century Bedlam where the collective hysteria is psychopathic feyness.

But the zaniest of the zany is Sam, the extremely irritating nephew of one of Benny's poker buddies and responsibility for whom is passed on to Benny when this fellow beats Joon's poker hand. Sam is played by Johnny Depp in a style that might charitably be called a cross between Buster Keaton and a finch. Birdlike, this young man is given to perching on tree limbs all day long, regarding the world through unblinking eyes as if he has no lids, his fine-boned features as remote as sheer avian blankness. But, given an audience that appreciates silent-film shenanigans, immediately blow out into Buster Keaton shtick, taking his deadpan and porkpie hat through pratfalls and acrobatics to the tune (or should that be "toon"?) of wistful music.

I find it unbelievable that Benny, heretofore represented as the most dogmatically responsible man in American movies (he turns down come-ons from beautiful women to care for Joon) suddenly relinquishes responsibility of her to an illiterate 26-year-old guy who is clearly as disturbed as she is. This bothers no one in the film, which flies on to the inevitable consequences, which are sexual and emotional.

Though Benny fights against the Joon-Sam link, it's fated by Barry Berman's cloying, unrigorous script and Jeremiah Chechik's cloying, unrigorous direction. The two damaged young people being beyond the reach of either therapy or rationality, the dramatic thrust of the movie is Benny's; he's got to learn to accept the new order of things, and no longer stand between Sam and Joon.

Of course no sane person can believe that Sam and Joon has a chance of making it in the world, but the movie refuses to face this irksome reality. Instead, it postures the predictable inanity that love conquers all, even mental illness and bad scripts.

But the main problem with "Benny & Joon" is that it's almost charmless to the same degree that it believes passionately in it's own charm. It's like being stuck on an elevator with a mime.

"Benny & Joon"

L Starring Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn.

Directed by Jeremiah Chechik.

Released by MGM.

Rated PG.

... **

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