Following ‘Cuckoo’s’ Flight Path
“Girl, Interrupted,” Susanna Kaysen’s exceptional memoir of the nearly two years she spent as a teenager in a mental institution, is about the porous line between sanity and madness. “People ask, How did you get in there?” the book begins. “What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It’s easy.”
“Girl, Interrupted,” the James Mangold-directed, Winona Ryder-starring film made from Kaysen’s book, walks a similarly delicate line, but this one is between Hollywood and reality, between the generic and the genuine.
The book, with its crystalline prose, is very much its own thing, episodic and without a high-powered story line. The film used three credited screenwriters (the director, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan) to fill in the inevitable blanks, but in doing so it’s had a hard time resisting manufacturing obvious, standard-issue drama of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” knockoff variety.
What helps the film stay as honest as it manages to sporadically be are the purity and grace of its lead performances by Ryder and Angelina Jolie. Both women have connected strongly to their parts, and they ensure their characters’ reality even if the dramas they are involved with don’t always rise to that standard.
It was Ryder’s passion for the book (she’s an executive producer) that got the film made, and she apparently identified with Kaysen’s story so strongly that she took the less overtly dramatic role of the author for herself.
Kaysen was 18 years old in 1967 when, under pressure from her parents and at the insistence of a therapist who interviewed her only once, she admitted herself to a mental hospital the film calls Claymoore. (McClean in Belmont, Mass., was the real place, at different times home to Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles.)
When the cabdriver taking her to Claymoore asks what her problem is, Kaysen wistfully replies, “I’m sad.” There’s more to it than that, of course, including the chasing of a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka (“I had a headache” is her movie-glib explanation), but in truth this young woman seems more lost in space than genuinely mentally ill.
Playing someone who is acting sullen and betrayed when she’s not dazed and confused is not the most promising of situations, but because Ryder has invested so much in Kaysen, we do as well. Not flashy or showy, Ryder’s performance has an authenticity to it, and the actress knows how to make us care in the bargain.
Claymoore does have adults in supervisory positions, whether it be head nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) or psychiatrists Dr. Potts (Jeffrey Tambor) and Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave). But they are marginal to both life at Claymoore and to the film. It’s the girls that make the difference. There’s roommate Georgina (Clea Duvall), in love with the “Wizard of Oz” books. There’s gorge-and-purge Daisy (Brittany Murphy) and Polly (Elisabeth Moss), the cheerful burn victim. Most of all, there is Lisa.
It’s hard to talk about Lisa, played by Jolie, without making her sound like a cliche, this film’s version of Jack Nicholson’s Randle P. McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Like him, Lisa is the ward’s life force, a rebel who dominates everyone she comes into contact with and knows just how to bend the institution’s rules.
Yet it’s a mark of the strength of Jolie’s performance that Lisa is in many ways the most individual and believable character in “Girl, Interrupted.” She has an enviably electric quality, and the roles she’s had recently, from “Pushing Tin” to “The Bone Collector” show her to be an actress who can be convincing in a variety of guises.
But if these characters are real enough, the experiences they are burdened with often descend into pro forma stuff. The girls break into the hospital office, for instance, and read their records (enabling Kaysen to find out she’s been diagnosed with the nebulous-sounding borderline personality disorder) though in reality this information isn’t discovered until 25 years after her release.
You don’t have to have read the book to know that this and a lot more of “Girl, Interrupted’s” more obvious drama has been constructed just for the film. Fortunately, the girls on the ward pull us back time and again. We know they’re only acting, but we also know they represent a reality that is all too believable.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and content relating to drugs, sexuality and suicide. Times guidelines: graphic shot of suicide victim who has hanged herself.
Winona Ryder: Susanna
Angelina Jolie: Lisa
Clea Duvall: Georgina
Brittany Murphy: Daisy
Whoopi Goldberg: Valerie
Vanessa Redgrave: Dr. Wick
A Red Wagon Production released by Columbia Pictures. Director James Mangold. Producers Douglas Wick, Cathy Konrad. Executive producers Carol Bodie, Winona Ryder. Screenplay James Mangold and Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the book by Susanna Kaysen. Cinematographer Jack Green. Editor Kevin Trent. Costumes Arianne Phillips. Music Mychael Danna. Production design Richard Hoover. Art director Jeff Kniff. Set decorator Maggie Martin. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
In general release.