Benny & Joon
1993, PG, 98 min. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik. Starring Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn, Julianne Moore, Oliver Platt, CCH Pounder, Dan Hedaya, Joe Grifasi.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 16, 1993
Naïf meets waif in this touching yet unrealistic tale of love amongst society's write-offs. Between Masterson's schizophrenic Joon Pearl and Depp's oddball Sam, it's difficult to tell which one's the naïf and which is the waif. But these two do find each other and set out to prove that in this crazy, mixed-up world, there's somebody out there for everyone, no matter how detached from reality he or she may be. Quinn plays sensitive and dependable big brother to the madness. Quinn's Benny is a mechanic who owns a garage and lives with his schizophrenic younger sister Joon Pearl in their childhood home. Despite Benny's difficulty keeping a housekeeper due to Joon's off-putting behavior and despite the urging of Joon's doctor to place his sister in a group home, Benny struggles to keep together what little he has left of family. The burden of responsibility costs him his personal life, he is either tending to his garage or tending to Joon. Into their lives comes Sam, a quietly peculiar eccentric who mimics the physical comedy moves of the great silent movie comedians. Sam, who has a slightly less fragile grip on reality than Joon, is supposed to be a shoo-in for the Great Stoneface Buster Keaton, but in reality his schtick borrows as much from other silent greats Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Jacques Tati. (That Sam comes to Benny and Joon as winnings in a poker game is also a mite disturbing given the recent trend toward the buying, selling and bartering of human beings in movies. Usually the bartered one is a woman as in Honeymoon in Vegas, Mad Dog and Glory and Indecent Proposal. In this context Sam's effete, illiterate and childlike manner is significant of his status in society.) Sam and Joon touch each other through their eccentricities and fall in love despite the dismay of all responsible parties. Where the movie impinges on the boundaries of decency is in its presentation of mental illness as harmlessly eccentric behavior. It belittles Joon's schizophrenia into a charming character trait and the mere accumulation of grossly misunderstood behavior. It probably also contributes to making Joon a better painter. It's a very romantic vision of the world -- excrutiatingly adolescent in a Holden Caulfield kind of way -- contending that two untrammeled dreamers removed from the slings and arrows of daily normalcy, can find happiness in a bubble of their own making. Benny & Joon wears its sensitivity on its sleeve and though it's a little hard to take at times, these actors make it all passable. It's likely that this will have a bigger draw amongst the pained teen set than their more cynical elders who understand hard facts like the only artistic future Sam faces is a career as a street mime. Whimsy, thy name is Benny & Joon.