Benny and Joon (1993): Charming Fable Starring Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp renders such a startling performance in the new romantic fable Benny & Joon that he almost overcomes the trappings of an emotional tale that’s 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 an actors’ showcase, however, the film 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.

Mary Stuart Masterson stars as Joon, the mentally ill sister of Benny (Aidan Quinn), an auto mechanic, who takes care of her. The quick-witted Masterson spends her days at home, painting with passion. Overprotective, Quinn actually sacrifices his life for Joon; he is too close and too concerned about her. The siblings go through housekeeper after housekeeper and other domestic crises, but they somehow reach a balanced, if boring, lifestyle–for both of them.

This frail equilibrium is shattered, when Sam (Johnny Depp), an eccentric, modern-day clown in the mold of Chaplin and Keaton, shows up and changes the rules of the game and the nature of the interactions. Quinn continues to worry, but he is also freer to pursue affairs of the heart with the charming Julianne Moore.

Endowed with a fable-like quality, the picture features an unusual narrative and protagonists for a studio product. Its strength lies more in the nuanced details of the relationships than in the smooth flow of a narrative, which tends to be episodic rather than dramatic. The love story is superficially placed in a suspenseful frame that revolves around the question of whether or not Quinn will institutionalize Masterson.

In mood and theme, Bennie & Joon bears some resemblance to David and Lisa, Frank Perry’s movie about the romance between two mentally disturbed teenagers. Similarly to the l963 film, the new story centers on the quasi-mysterious bond between Depp and Masterson, who seem to be linked through a shared marginality and temperament.

The problem with Bennie & Joon is that it plays it too safe. Though a flashback of a traumatic family disaster suggests the cause for Masterson’s problem, the story never bothers to establish just how sick she really is. This, of course, allows the narrative to play it both ways: excepting one hysterical scene, Masterson appears as “normal” as Quinn or his poker-game buddies.

Showing extraordinary generosity to his performers, debutante helmer Jeremiah Chechik indulges episodes that are essentially non-dramatic just because they 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 extraordinary role in Edward Scissorhands: a misunderstood eccentric par excellence. Young viewers will get a kick out of watching Depp prepare grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron. 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 the harsh, outside reality.

The 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, if not spectacular. With locations shot in Spokane, Washington, 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.