Saturday, March 5, 2011

Benny & Joon

BENNY & JOON                                  B                     
USA  (98 mi)  1993  d:  Jeremiah S. Chechnik 

Some cultures are defined by their relationship to cheese.                  
—Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson)

In the charming and whimiscal manner of DAVID AND LISA (1962), HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), or DOMINICK AND EUGENE (1988), we now have BENNY & JOON.  Made a few years after EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990) and the same year as WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (1993), a film this very much resembles, with Mary Stuart Masterson as Joon playing the mentally challenged Leonardo DiCaprio part, what I found especially interesting is how Masterson holds her own onscreen with Johnny Depp, and may even provide the superior performance.  Depp’s role is very showy, almost the stereotype of a Johnny Depp chosen eccentric, which is obvious from the very first moment we see him sitting alone in a tree.  While there is a nod to Buster Keaton through a shot of a book Depp is reading, there is no tribute to Chaplin, as Depp completely steals the Dance of the Dinner Rolls, “The Oceana Roll” scene from THE GOLD RUSH (1925) seen here YouTube - Charlie Chaplin- Table Ballet on YouTube (1:02).  It might have been nice over the end credits to see both performances side by side on a split screen, as Depp even copies the facial expressions and the Chaplin body language.  While many assume Depp plays the title character, actually he plays Sam, with Aidan Quinn as big brother Benny, who looks after his mentally ill sister after both parents died in a car crash.  Like the subsequent children’s story NANNY MCPHEE (2005), Joon wears out her housekeepers, going through the available list until all that’s left is a private group home that her psychiatrist (CCH Pounder) finally recommends to Benny.  Reluctant to send her away, this idea hovers over the rest of the film like an elelphant in the room. 

Joon seems to enjoy herself when left alone and doesn’t wander off or get into outside trouble, as she follows her routines faithfully and loves painting, but she has her moments when she feels suspiciously picked on and singled out, where the world is turning against her and she loses all sense of control, either striking back in an angry tantrum or feeling the heightened anxiety of a panic attack.  She is apt to throw things, which sends the last housekeeper out the door.  Benny works as a car mechanic where he gives the best cut rates in town, but otherwise is committed to taking care of his sister, always sharing affectionate moments with her every day, where the two have a special closeness, which prevents Benny from moving on in his life, as he has no life other than work and his sister.  But unlike the horrible bad guy characters Quinn has become associated with late in his career, he’s an especially nice guy here, and the well rounded cast of his poker friends include Oliver Platt and Dan Hedaya, with brief appearances from William H. Macy.  When they play poker, they don’t have money, so the stakes are things lying around the house, where Sam is an unwanted cousin given away in a poker game. 

The two oddballs quickly express an interest in one another, which becomes fascinating when it turns romantic, where Depp goes through the repertoire of silent film comedians, wearing funny suits and a hat, rarely speaking, and performing mime tricks in public which always draw a crowd.  Written by Barry Berman and Lesley McNeil, there are also a memorable string of one-liners in this film, making this an endearing film, perhaps overly cute in its treatment of mental illness, which gets glossed over in favor of laughs and sentiment.  But give the two stars credit here, as they are both brilliant, where Depp’s comic timing and apparent ease with the physical comedy makes him look like a natural, and Masterson is wonderfully quirky with her innocent curiosity and quick mood changes, not to mention a surprising Holden Caulfield wit on display.  Perhaps the real discovery is an early appearance by none other than Julianne Moore, absolutely adorable as a cute young waitress who dabbles in B-movies, who brings a much needed sanity to the situation, as she shows good judgment as the love interest for Benny, who’s too wrapped up in Joon’s swooning desires and sudden pangs of freedom to notice.  Without Depp, no doubt few would ever have been attracted to this film, but Masterson is a scene stealer in her own right.  However, few will forget the lunacy of Depp’s infamous window washing routine outside her window, something that would fit right into any Wallace & Gromit film.   

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