Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson render such startling performances in the romantic fable “Benny & Joon” that they almost overcome the trappings of an emotional tale that is not particularly well written or directed. Focusing on an unusual triangle — two siblings and an outsider — this offbeat love story may rise above moderate appeal if it links with the twentysomething group that is its subject. As a great actors’ showcase, however, pic is destined to be more popular on video and cable.
The core of Barry Berman’s script is based on a romanticized conception of mental illness, the mythology that the mentally disturbed are more sensitive and artistic than “ordinary” human beings. Fortunately, it is possible to enjoy the film without accepting this prevalent, but debatable, premise.
Masterson stars as Joon, the mentally ill sister of Benny (Aidan Quinn), an auto mechanic who takes care of her. The quick-witted Joon spends her days at home, painting with passion. The overprotective Benny is too close and concerned about her, but the siblings somehow reach a balanced, if boring, lifestyle that suits both of them.
This frail equilibrium is shattered when Sam (Depp), an eccentric, modern-day clown in the mold of Chaplin and Keaton, shows up and changes the rules of the game. Quinn continues to worry, but he is also freer to pursue affairs of the heart with the charming Ruthie (Julianne Moore).
Endowed with a fable-like quality, pic features an unusual narrative and protagonists for a big studio project. Its strength lies more in the nuanced details of the relationships than in the smooth flow of a narrative that tends to be episodic rather than dramatic. The love story is superficially placed in a suspenseful frame that revolves around whether or not Benny will institutionalize Joon.
In mood and theme, film bears some resemblance to “David & Lisa,” Frank Perry’s movie about the romance between two mentally disturbed teenagers. Like the 1963 sleeper, new pic centers on the quasi-mysterious bond between two young people linked through a shared marginality and temperament.
But “Benny & Joon” plays it too safe. Though a flashback of a traumatic family disaster suggests the cause for Joon’s problem, it’s never established just how sick she really is. This allows the narrative to have it both ways: excepting one hysterical scene, Joon appears as “normal” as Quinn or his poker buddies.
Displaying exceptional generosity to his performers, debutante helmer Jeremiah Chechik indulges undramatic episodes which soar as actors’ material. But he approaches the narrative with undue timidity and is ultimately unsuccessful in varying the rhythm of its comic, intimate and melodramatic sequences.
As a fairy-tale clown, Depp is playing a variation of his Edward Scissorhands role — a misunderstood eccentric par excellence. Both Depp and Masterson, whose screen chemistry sparkles, excel in embodying the spirits of magic. In contrast, Aidan Quinn, who continues to be typecast as the handsome and sensitive male, is stuck with a more difficult role: the representative of harsh, outside reality.
Supporting cast members, particularly Oliver Platt as Quinn’s co-worker and friend, and C.C.H. Pounder as Masterson’s caring doctor, all hit their marks.
Behind-the-scenes contributions are solid. With locations shot in Spokane, John Schwartzman’s cinematography has an appealing look and feel, specifically in conveying the lush Riverfront Park, where Depp performs his antics.
Rachel Portman (“Used People”) delivers yet another tremendous score, one fittingly tinged with romance, lyricism and melancholy. Her Nino Rota-like melodies for Depp’s acrobatics poignantly underscore the film’s off-center charm.