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Prozac Nation

The brat at the center of "Prozac Nation" makes life miserable for everyone around her, but there's no reason the public should pay for that privilege. Star Christina Ricci gives a smart performance, but the rest of the cast is variable. Some of the "Girl, Interrupted" crowd could go for this drama, but crossover to a wider demographic is doubtful.

Elizabeth Wurtzel - Christina Ricci Rafe - Jason Biggs Dr. Diana Sterling - Anne Heche Ruby - Michelle Williams Noah - Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Sarah - Jessica Lange Donald - Nicholas Campbell Lou Reed - Himself Grandmother - Sheila Paterson Lizzie at 11 - Zoe Miller

The self-centered brat at the center of “Prozac Nation” spends most of her time making life miserable for everyone around her, but there’s little reason the public should have to pay for the same privilege. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s bestselling memoir about being a talented, attractive but clinically depressed Harvard student in the ’80s obviously struck a chord with a certain crowd. But while star Christina Ricci’s smart performance rivets attention for a while, the picture can’t really get inside her character’s head to meaningfully explore the condition upon which it lavishes so much attention, a malaise about which the filmmakers are far more fascinated than they are ever able to persuade the viewer to be. A portion of the “Girl, Interrupted” audience could go for this narrowly focused drama, but crossover to a wider demographic is highly doubtful.

This second feature from Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjaerg, whose 1997 detective thriller “Insomnia” was a widespread critical success internationally, is certainly carefully and well made, and does not start out badly. But as an attempt to explain the not uncommon ailment of intense depression, script by Galt Niederhoffer, Alex Orlovsky and Frank Deasy does not find a proper balance between cause, treatment and cure. Nor does it ever widen its scope enough to justify the presumptuously far-reaching implications of the title, leaving us instead in the company of a sharp-witted and initially interesting teenager whose indulgent and self-centered behavior becomes tiresomely irritating.

Packed off to Harvard on a journalism scholarship by her tense, unstable mother Sarah (Jessica Lange), Lizzie (Ricci) could be well on her way to owning the world: Her initial music columns for the Crimson earn her gigs at Rolling Stone, she’s sexy in a highly individualistic way, and she’s far more mature than most other college freshman even if she is still a virgin, a situation she quickly has remedied courtesy of the cutest guy she meets on campus (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).

But she pisses him off by throwing herself a Lost-My-Cherry party and is soon testing the patience of everyone, including her ideal roommate and quick best friend Ruby (Michelle Williams) with her drug-fueled writing marathons and temperamental unreliability. Quoting Hemingway, Lizzie declares that depression comes on “gradually, then suddenly,” and she quickly lands in therapy with the patient and not particularly probing Dr. Diana Sterling (Anne Heche).

Lizzie also picks out a new boyfriend, Rafe (Jason Biggs), whose Nice Jewish Boy propriety may not be what the doctor ordered. All the same, Lizzie designates him as her “savior” from her demons, which seem to stem mainly from her tortured non-relationship with her ne’er-do-well father (Nicholas Campbell), who, after years of absence, begins turning up from time to time, and even more from her all-but-impossible emotional battle with her mother, a bitter neurotic whose every effort to do the right thing seems to end disastrously. As Lizzie rightly notes at one point, being the child of divorced parents is virtually the normal condition in the U.S. and doesn’t entitle her to automatic coddling for acute depression. But she requires it all the same.

By the time, an hour in, that Lizzie leaves her mother in the lurch for the holidays and flies off to visit Rafe in Texas against the latter’s wishes, one can only sympathize with Rafe, who dumps her on the spot. Unfortunately, the viewer is required to spend considerably more time with this young woman, who is constantly making heavy demands upon other people and making them share in her innumerable crises without giving anything back in return. One can scarcely care after this point.

Narrative’s throughline is interrupted here as well. Dr. Sterling finally prescribes Prozac at this desperate stage, but precisely what the drug’s effect on Lizzie is remains unclear. There is talk of her mutating into a “different person,” but it’s impossible to know if the medication is being entirely credited with her eventual mellowing out, or how it affects her feelings about her parents, how it impacts her writing, how long she took it and so on. The stuff must be pretty good, however, since by the end Lizzie has become a celebrated author.

Skjoldbjaerg and lenser Erling Thurmann-Andersen have worked out an attractively compressed and precise visual style, although the succession of two-character scenes of Lizzie arguing with someone or talking out her problems, particularly in the latter-going, becomes wearying. Pic also contains one of the worst editing ideas in recent memory, as TV footage of the Challenger space shuttle exploding is intercut with an episode of Lange being mugged on the street.

An early champion of the project and credited as a co-producer, Ricci is clearly deeply involved in her characterization, and her performance is far and away the most compelling aspect of the picture. Looking every bit the “dark literary freak” Lizzie sets out to be, Ricci, who, as an early-on nude scene attests, has become downright skinny, is by turns provocative, scary, vulnerable and fearsomely bright. She refuses to sentimentalize Lizzie’s problem, but that’s still not enough to stave off the sense of indulgence toward an unsympathetic character.

Remainder of the cast is more variable. Lange smokes too many cigarettes and chews too much scenery as the overwrought mom, Biggs comes dangerously close to being ineffectual and unable to stand up to such a dominant girlfriend, and Heche, with all her self-advertised real-life baggage, reps borderline risible casting as a mental health-bestowing therapist.

Print shown in Toronto featured a part-temp soundtrack.

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Prozac Nation

Production: A Millennium Films presentation in association with Cinerenta of a Given Films production. (International sales: Nu Image, Los Angeles.) Produced by Galt Niederhoffer, Brad Weston, R. Paul Miller. Executive producers, Willi Baer, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, John Thompson. Co-producers, Andrea Sperling, Christina Ricci. Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg. Screenplay, Galt Niederhoffer, Alex Orlovsky, Frank Deasy, based on the book by Elizabeth Wurtzel.

Crew: Camera (color), Erling Thurmann-Andersen; editor, James Lyons; production designer, Clay A. Griffith; art director, Don Macauley; costume designer, Terry Dresbach; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael Williamson; line producer, Andrew Sugarman; associate producers, Rainer Bienger, Deni Lati Grobman; assistant director, Marco Londoner; casting, Mary Vernieu, Anne McCarthy. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9, 2001. Running time: 99 MIN.

With: Elizabeth Wurtzel - Christina Ricci Rafe - Jason Biggs Dr. Diana Sterling - Anne Heche Ruby - Michelle Williams Noah - Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Sarah - Jessica Lange Donald - Nicholas Campbell Lou Reed - Himself Grandmother - Sheila Paterson Lizzie at 11 - Zoe Miller

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