`Interrupted,' so altered, disappointed

Review: A rigidly structured film version of `Girl, Interrupted' jettisons all the subtleties of the book.

January 14, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Susanna Kaysen's "Girl, Interrupted" is a spare, funny, virtually plot-free memoir of insightful vignettes relating to institutionalization. The beauty of the book, which became a best seller, is its elliptical, delicate style.

So why would Winona Ryder, executive producer of the film version, force Kaysen's story to succumb to conventional narrative, replete with stock characters, predictable plot points and a rigid three-act structure?

It's as if the book itself has been locked up and institutionalized, forced to conform to a system that all but obliterates its own unique personality.

Indeed, the movie version of "Girl, Interrupted," which tells the story of Kaysen's time in a mental hospital in 1967, turns out to be little more than a contemporized version of the women-behind-bars exploitation pictures of the 1950s. At once overheated and unengaging, the film is devoid of the personal and social nuances that gave the book its resonance.

And it gains nothing from Ryder's performance in the title role. Reportedly the actress saw much of herself in Kaysen, whom she has proceeded to reduce to a chain-smoking, moodily petulant sylph. Imagine Audrey Hepburn cast in "The Snake Pit" and you begin to get the idea.

The character who propels the action in "Girl, Interrupted" is Lisa, a manipulative sociopath portrayed by Angelina Jolie, who plays the Eve Arden role chiefly by sashaying her hips and poking cigarettes out of lips as deeply cleft as Cary Grant's chin.

Jolie has been praised for a bravura performance in the film's juiciest role, but her waxy pallor and coarse bonhomie soon become irritations in an already tiresome enterprise.

For a movie intended to debunk most cinematic stereotypes of mental illness, "Girl, Interrupted" trots out an astounding number of cliches: the ratchety nurse, the coy winks about lesbianism, the hydro-therapy scene, the straitjacket scene and the wacky-yet-touching moments of girl-power rebellion. There's even a nurturing black nurse (Whoopi Goldberg) whose only role in life, it seems, is to hand out bromides and Valiums with the same grinning equanimity.

In the hands of the right screenwriters and director, "Girl, Interrupted" might have been an evocative portrait of a young woman's inner life; think of movies like "Ruby in Paradise," or even James Mangold's first feature, "Heavy" -- both almost dialogue-free but vivid portraits of people undergoing profound transformations.

But Mangold brings few of his powers of observation to bear here.

Aside from some gracefully executed flashbacks and one terrific scene with Susanna and a wise therapist (played with comforting authority by Vanessa Redgrave), "Girl, Interrupted" is content to bounce from one lurid scene to the next, culminating in a ridiculous trip through the hospital's underground tunnels.

Watching this hysterical group of young women chase each other down Gothically shadowed corridors, viewers can't help but think that what they're watching must be as far from Kaysen's original vision -- and experience -- as a movie can get.

Girl, it looks like you've been interrupted again.

`Girl, Interrupted'

Starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg

Directed by James Mangold

Rated R (strong language and content relating to drugs, sexuality and suicide)

Running time 125 minutes

Released by Columbia Pictures

Sun score: *

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