Veering from the serious to the trivial and from the clinical to the lurid, James Mangold’s “Girl, Interrupted” is a middling film that only partially conveys the spirit of its source material. Based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her experience at a mental hospital in the late ’60s, this moderately engaging effort imposes a detached, male perspective on the author’s firsthand observations. Best marketing hooks for this Columbia holiday release, other than the curiosity it will provoke among fans of the bestseller, are a solid central performance by Winona Ryder and a captivating wild turn by Angelina Jolie in the yarn’s flashiest role.
Kaysen’s journal presents a difficult challenge for screen adaptation. Not only is it episodic and non-chronological, but it integrates sharp commentary on female adolescence, bourgeois family values and the abuse of authority by the medical profession. What’s missing from this film, co-written by Mangold, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, is the author’s dark humor and revelatory insights into her ordeal. Pic is unevenly structured and directed, its sensibility only one notch above that of a Lifetime telepic.
Confused, insecure and baffled by the rapidly changing mores of American society in 1967-68, Susanna (Ryder) appears to be like many other adolescents. This is conveyed in the first-person narration that opens the tale: “Maybe I was really crazy, maybe it was the ’60s, or just a girl, interrupted.” When Susanna’s upper-middle class parents discover that she has taken a whole bottle of aspirin, presumably to get rid of a headache, they urge her to see a psychiatrist.
The doctor diagnoses borderline personality disorder, manifest by “uncertainty about self-image, goals, types of friends or lovers to have and which values to adopt.” Without a moment of hesitation or doubt, he recommends institutionalization at the Claymoore Hospital.
Film’s focus on teen-age girls gives it a somewhat novel angle; classic Hollywood mellers about mentally ill femmes have dealt with adults, usually housewives, as in “The Snake Pit” or “The Three Faces of Eve.” But once Susanna lands at the asylum, the story toes a more conventional path. Most of the narrative is set within the confines of the ward, centering on Susanna’s interactions and growing friendship with a half-dozen inmates, who are mostly character types rather than full-blooded characters.
The clique of eccentrics includes Lisa (Jolie), a charming sociopath who has spent years in the hospital, with repeated escapes and returns; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a pampered Daddy’s girl with an eating disorder; and the sensitive Polly (Elisabeth Moss), whose scarred face offers a sharp contrast to her sensitive heart.
As expected in such tales, there’s a benevolent, no-nonsense nurse, Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg), who befriends Susanna and brings her back to reality whenever she engages in crazy (“dreamy,” as she says) conduct. Vanessa Redgrave shows up in three scenes as head psychiatrist Dr. Wick, whose sessions with Susanna touch upon some of the film’s most fascinating issues, such as society’s arbitrary labeling of normalcy and insanity and its double standard regarding female teen-age sexuality.
Early on, Susanna is established as a girl who unabashedly loves sex, sleeping with a married teacher who’s the father of a classmate. There’s a good scene in which she’s confronted by his wife (Mary Kay Place) in an ice cream parlor while on an outing with the other inmates. Later on, Susanna gets romantically involved with Tobias (Jared Leto), a hippie who’s drafted to go to Vietnam and who sees that there’s basically nothing wrong with her. She also carries on with one of the hospital’s employees, which costs him his job.
In one of the film’s more intriguing acts, Susanna, now labeled “compulsively promiscuous,” charges back at Dr. Wick: “How many girls would a 17-year-old boy have to screw to earn the label ‘compulsively promiscuous’? And how many boys for 17-year-old girls?” One wishes the chronicle contained more substantial scenes like this, but Mangold seems content merely recording daily existence in the ward, focusing on the formation of cliques and the camaraderie among the girls, which were not central to the memoir.
What’s more disturbing is that the film doesn’t bother to explain its title, which is taken from a Vermeer painting, “Girl Interrupted at Her Music.” In the published journal, there are wonderful recollections of how Susanna first saw the painting with her English teacher at the Frick Gallery, of the impact it continued to exert on her and of her second encounter with Vermeer’s work 16 years later.
Mangold, who made an auspicious directorial debut with “Heavy,” disappointingly employs the same strategies that he used in that 1995 film and in his next effort, “Cop Land.” But the longueurs and deliberate pacing that were so crucial to the dissection of uneventful life in “Heavy” prove detrimental here (as they did in “Cop Land”) to viewers’ involvement, resulting in a lopsided, often dull movie.
Ryder is credibly cast as the rich, spoiled and confused girl, occasionally rising above the script’s limitations. Stealing every scene she’s in, Jolie is excellent as the flamboyant, irresponsible girl who turns out to be far more instrumental than the doctors in Susanna’s rehabilitation. Redgrave and Goldberg are decent in roles that don’t allow much emotional range.
As befits the setting, production values are unadorned, particularly the visuals by Jack Green, Clint Eastwood’s reliable lenser, who endows the story with a rough but sharp look. Richard Hoover’s detailed design and Arianne Phillips’ tacky costumes contribute to an accurate re-creation of the late ’60s, highlighted by popular songs of the era.