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‘Benny & Joon’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 16, 1993


Jeremiah S. Chechik
Johnny Depp;
Mary Stuart Masterson;
Aidan Quinn;
Julianne Moore;
Oliver Platt;
C.C.H. Pounder;
Dan Hedaya;
Joe Grifasi;
William H. Macy
Parental guidance suggested

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A cultural feeding frenzy abounds in the entertainment media. Classic heroes (from Chaplin to Bogart) and baby boomer heroes (from the Beatles to the Jackson 5) are being sliced up regularly into sound-bite morsels for the MTV generation.

Listen to John Lennon sell you Nike shoes. Catch Paula Abdul's interactive "Casablanca" dance. Watch Luke Perry play Rebel Without a Clue. Listen to rappers loot (sorry, that's sample) their musical forebears.

The cultural usurpation extends to "Benny & Joon," a new movie that would make Johnny Depp into a quasi-Buster Keaton by a mere act of glam-casting. Playing a mentally unhinged, almost wordless naif who finds true love with equally nutty Mary Stuart Masterson, he's supposed to invoke the silent comedian, with a little Chaplin thrown in. But he's just Edward Scissorhands without the scissors -- or the edge.

"Benny" is also the kind of movie in which mental illness isn't a disease or a psychosis. It's a state of lovable lunacy, a la "King of Hearts." Car mechanic Aidan Quinn (he's Benny) has spent most of his life protecting, uh, charmingly unbalanced sister Masterson (Joon) from the real world. While Quinn changes oil, she paints or blends together peanut butter, cereal and milk at home. Occasionally, she'll have a stormy rage, but it's hermetically sealed enough to keep her endearing.

She clearly needs a partner. Quinn needs to unload that cross of responsibility -- particularly since he's developed a crush on waitress Julianne Moore. It's time for Johnny Depp.

The opportunity comes at an evening of barter poker, a regular game played by Quinn and his work pals, in which the strangest substitutes for legal tender are thrown into the pot (a night at the ballgame; a medium-sized green troll). Filling in for her absent brother one night, Masterson loses big. She gets Depp (an unwanted guest in a card-player's house) as a penalty. Quinn discovers he has inherited a permanent house guest with a difference. A manchild in top hat and baggy pants, Depp poses poetically in corners and under sinks. Like Chaplin, he sticks forks into bread rolls and transforms them into dancing feet. He leaves a jack-in-the-box outside the front door, then sits on a nearby mailbox waiting shyly to be asked in. He uses an iron to make grilled cheese sandwiches. He's a nutball and ya gotta love him.

It's just a matter of time before Masterson falls in love with her partner in mime. Quinn, whose self-imposed responsibilities towards Masterson have prevented him from dating Moore, has to release his hold on his sister. He also has to realize that mental illness can be all but cured through love -- at least, in this movie.

As an "offbeat" hero, Depp's so conventionally drawn, he could start his own sitcom after this. ("Tuesday, Johnny's lost his hat and Mary Stuart Masterson's lost her mind! Be there!") With no reference to the real Keaton, the twentysomething audience (and under) might just perceive poignance in Depp's bubblegum-idol presence. They might relate to cutely addled Masterson, who can't eat the raisins in her tapioca because they were once grapes with life in them. Perhaps they won't agree that the movie's riddled with insufferably contrived zaniness, or that it deals as deeply with mental illness as "The Sound of Music" explored the genocidal advance of the Third Reich.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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