1999, R, 125 min. Directed by James Mangold. Starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Vanessa Redgrave, Clea Duvall, Brittany Murphy, Elizabeth Moss, Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Whoopi Goldberg, Jillian Armenante.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 14, 2000
Adapted from Susanna Kaysen's memoir of the same title, Girl, Interrupted tackles the ever-popular subject of mental illness and -- surprise! -- comes off less titillating than you'd expect. Much of this is due in part to star Ryder (she plays the teenage Kaysen) and her unswerving drive over the course of the last decade to bring the author's story to the screen. She's been making the talk-show rounds of late, opining about the need to get the message across to young, angst-ridden girls that they're not alone -- a worthy cause to be sure, though one perhaps better served by an influx of charitable contributions to psychiatric youth counseling centers and like-minded institutions. Then again, young girls probably go to movies more than they call help lines, so maybe Ryder has the right idea after all. Mangold, who directed the punchy Cop Land a couple of years back, lets the story take its own course, rarely relying on the more cinematic aspects of his skills and instead allowing the slow burn of mental illness and all of its attendant ghastlies to wash over the audience like a sluggish hospital-green tide of unease. No mean feat when you consider the level of talent in the film, which runs from the electroshock sensuality of Jolie to the subtly unnerving mental meltdown of relative newcomer Murphy, who plays a young Electra-complected patient with a roasted chicken fetish and a very bad dad. The film begins, though, with Kaysen's self-admission into a woodsy New England mental institution with the ominous name of Claymoore (“Bang! You're cured!”) in the wake of a self-help experiment involving a bottle of aspirin and a matching vodka chaser. At first glance, Claymoore and its residents seem little more than your standard assemblage of Hollywood-cliché crazies, among them the childlike Polly (Moss), horribly scarred in a freakish childhood display of petulance; pathological liar and Wizard of Oz fanatic Georgina (the wonderful DuVall); and the aforementioned Daisy (Murphy), a veritable whirlpool of creepiness with a room full of stuffed animals and -- nice counterpoint -- rotting chicken carcasses. To top off my earlier dread of the film's Hollywood niceties, there's also Goldberg as the liberal, tough-lovin' head nurse with a cause. Ugh. Everything changes, though, with the introduction of Lisa (Jolie), a feral, outlandishly riveting sociopath who, we're told, has been a Claymoore resident for the past eight years (despite a number of midnight escapes) and acts as self-styled group leader to the other girls. Ballsy, painfully sexy, and invested with the primal, devil-may-care theatrics of the Sixties (the film is set in 1968), Jolie is a powder keg of unrepressed, underdressed femininity run amok. “Bad” doesn't even begin to describe this girl, and you get the feeling the truth couldn't upset her if it bit her lips off. When not quoting Dorothy Parker she's spouting Sylvia Plathitudes and stirring up bad juju en masse. From here on out, Girl, Interrupted falls prey to several genre conventions -- the trip off institutional grounds, attempted and completed suicides, and rampant nurse-baiting -- that were better done in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Indeed, by the end of Girl, Interrupted, I was hoping Will Sampson would show up to toss Whoopi Goldberg out the window, but no such luck.) Still, Jolie's explosive performance surpasses all expectations and renders the film a veritable must-see. There's a lot of tear-streaked hooey here, to be sure, but Jolie makes up for it in spades and lazy, crazy sensuality.