MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Benny & Joon’ a Sentimental Fable : When Sam enters the title duo’s lives, they learn the meaning of love and togetherness and all that jazz. After all, everybody is magical once you get past their hang-ups.
With “Benny & Joon” (citywide) we’re back in the fantasyland popularized by movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and, before that, “David and Lisa"--where being crazy is the only sane response to an insane world.
Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) is the kookily unbalanced sister of Benny (Aidan Quinn), a soulful, overprotective auto mechanic. When Sam (Johnny Depp), a quirky, clownish spirit who idolizes Keaton and Chaplin, enters their lives, they learn the meaning of love and togetherness and all that jazz. It’s the kind of scenario that might bring a tear to the eye of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley, the pseudo-pop therapist on “Saturday Night Live.”
This sentimental stew is not without its flavors, and the cast tries hard to be winsome and adorably distraught. Benny plays poker with his buddies and scrupulously avoids female companionship because his life is so complicated by his homebody sister that he can’t conceive of a life apart from her. He staggers about befogged by his responsibilities.
Joon, who wavers between rational alertness and hyper-anxious loopiness, spends much of her time painting goopy expressionist canvases. When Sam, a cousin of one of Benny’s friend, becomes their housemate as the result of a poker bet, we’re primed for a heartwarming communion. Sam and Joon are supposed to be soul mates--two innocents who learn to groove on their own flightiness.
It’s part of the film’s game plan that we’re never quite sure just how unbalanced Joon or Sam are supposed to be. Director Jeremiah Chechik and screenwriter Barry Berman, who used to be a circus clown, aren’t geared up to alienate the audience with too many throes of misery; this is, after all, a movie where to be out of touch with reality is to be in touch with yourself.
“Benny & Joon” (rated PG for theme, sensuality and language) wants us to know that everybody is magical once you get past their hang-ups. Sam, who lopes around like one of his beloved silent film heroes and lives owl-like in a tree when he’s temporarily without shelter, might ordinarily appear to be the object of fun in a film with less weighty matter on its mind. But if he’s a fool, he’s a holy fool--a redeemer. He transforms not only Joon’s life, but Benny’s as well.
These transformations are foregone conclusions--surprises aren’t real big in fables. But at least a few of the performers bring something fresh to their roles. Quinn has a naturalness that ultimately makes his bemused reverence for Sam almost believable; we can see how Benny is closer to Joon’s kind of magical thinking than he has allowed himself to admit. Depp performs some of his slapstick routines with grace, and his cracked yearning for Joon comes through without sappiness. Masterson has a more difficult time convincing us that she’s elfin. Her malcontent is saddled with so many symbols that she doesn’t quite make it as a “real” person. Or an unreal one either.
‘Benny & Joon’
Johnny Depp Sam
Mary Staurt Masterson Joon
Aidan Quinn Benny
Oliver Platt Eric
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presentation of a Roth/Arnold production. Director Jeremiah Chechik. Producers Susan Arnold and Donna Roth. Executive producer Bill Badalato. Screenplay by Barry Berman. Cinematographer John Schwartzman. Editor Carol Littleton. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Neil Spisak. Pat Tagliaferro. Set decorator Barbara Munch. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (theme, sensuality, language).