In the movies, the fine line between creativity and madness can be as broad as Hollywood Boulevard. And there is one rule of the road: the mentally ill must be entertaining. In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman’s imitation of autism plays like a standup comedy routine. And in movies ranging from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to The Fisher King, insanity is a font of innocence, wit and magic—the lunatic is just an unappreciated artist, doing flamboyant work on an invisible canvas. Now, Benny &
Joon offers all the joys of schizophrenia, with none of the pain. It is a funny, innocuous fable, a Sweet ’N Low romantic comedy that seems a little facile at first, but has irresistible charm.
Joon, played with delicate nuance by Mary Stuart Masterson, is slightly crazy—not enough to be committed, but she does require medication and supervision. Joon lives at home with her brother, a sensitive mechanic named Benny (Aidan Quinn). While he is at work, she stays home and paints. But the housekeepers hired to keep her out of trouble keep quitting. And while Benny wonders about sending her to a group home, a young eccentric named Sam (Johnny Depp) suddenly shows up on the scene. Sam is a little crazy in his own right. But he has channelled it into a kind of performance art. He is
a self-styled clown—a cross between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, with the enigmatic gaze of a young Bob Dylan.
As the result of a bizarre wager in a poker game, Sam ends up moving in with Benny and Joon. Benny now has two child-minds to supervise. But each makes the other feel sane by comparison. And Joon finds a soul mate in Sam. She whips up blender shakes with peanut butter and Cap’n Crunch cereal; he makes grilled cheese sandwiches with a steam iron. Inevitably, romance blossoms, with all the innocence that arrested development can provide.
Directed with a breezy, affectionate touch
by Montreal-born film-maker Jeremiah Chechik, Benny & Joon is like a well-tuned circus act. The comedy is occasionally antic, but never clumsy. The sentiment is sweet, but not sticky. And subtle performances lend surprising depth to a broad script (written by former Ringling Brothers clown Barry Berman). Depp’s character seems to be a variation on his role as a hedge-trimming dervish in the fable Edward Scissorhands— again he plays the lovable naïf who drops like an angel out of the blue and dazzles everyone with his artistic dexterity. But the actor brings a fresh style to Benny & Joon. And the movie proves to be a rare treat—a hip, sunny comedy suitable for anyone with a soft spot for insanity.
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