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‘Benny & Joon’

By Rita Kempley
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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"Benny & Joon" is a sweetly pixilated ampersand movie about loony tunes in love. In the tradition of "David & Lisa," "Harold and Maude" and "Dominick & Eugene," it is a romantic comedy, but with three oddballs whose heartstrings are all ensnarled: Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), a smart schizophrenic; Benny (Aidan Quinn), her overprotective brother; and Sam (Johnny Depp), the quirky naif who frees them from co-dependency. But don't expect psychobabble, for this is a blithe look at mental illness.

The screenplay, penned by a former clown (the Washington-bred Barry Berman), has the fractured feel of a three-ring circus: some magic, some poignancy, much -- maybe too much -- loopiness. A fable that also deals with overcoming a handicap through creativity, the story will recall to Depp fans especially the edgier, more brilliant "Edward Scissorhands."

In this tale as in that one, Depp is a fey fellow living on the edge of society -- this time under a cousin's sink in a fairy tale section of Spokane, Wash. Depp's physical grace and gift for mime serve him well as the slow-witted Sam, a devotee of silent comedians who is won by the siblings in a poker game. "You can't bet a human being," says Benny, who obviously still hasn't seen "Honeymoon in Vegas." In any case, Sam finds the perfect romantic partner in Joon, a painter whose symptoms are controlled to some degree by her medication, even though she wears a snorkel when she is out directing traffic with a Ping-Pong paddle. To Sam she seems less deluded than eccentric, and entirely lovable.

Benny, who has been avoiding his own problems by focusing on hers, throws Sam out when he learns of the affair. His actions surely have as much to do with his fear of becoming involved with a good-hearted waitress (Julianne Moore of "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"). Joon and Sam attempt to run away together, but the adventure ends unhappily.

The film, however, takes a more hopeful tone, if not a realistic one considering Joon's schizophrenia. But this is not about starry starry nights but starry starry eyes, with Joon more charming than crazed. Masterson, one of the "Fried Green Tomatoes," does not take shameless advantage of the opportunity to go screaming yellow bonkers. She's delicately imbalanced in her dealings with her smothering sib. Quinn, a Wal-Mart Brando, is appealing as her emotionally awkward brother, if not altogether believable when he tosses out simple Sam.

There's an old-fashioned feel to the film, directed with aggressive whimsicality by Jeremiah Chechik, whose background, aside from "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," is largely TV commercials and music videos. He has crafted "Benny & Joon" not as a seamless whole but as a tumble of scenes. Unfortunately, too many of them are inspired by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, and they seem to spill from the screen like Bozos from a kiddie car.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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