Girl, Interrupted: James Mangold Melodrama, Starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in her Oscar Role

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 original source material.

Based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her experience at an asylum in the late 60s, this moderately engaging effort imposes a detached, male perspective on the author’s first-hand observations. Best marketing hooks for Columbia holiday release, other than the curiosity it will entice among fans of the bestseller, are a solid central performance by Winona Ryder and a wild turn by Angelina Jolie in the yarn’s flashiest role.

Kaysen’s journal presents a difficult challenge for screen adaptation, as it’s not only written in episodic manner that jumps in time, but also integrates sharp commentary on female adolescence, bourgeois family values, the use and 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 in discussing her ordeal. As structured and directed, Girl, Interrupted is an uneven film, only one notch above the sensibility of a Lifetime Special or TV Movie of the Week.

Confused, insecure, and baffled by the rapidly changing mores of American society in 1967-8, during the Vietnam War, Susanna (Ryder) appears to be like many other adolescents. This is conveyed in her 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 had taken a whole bottle of aspirin, presumably to get rid of a headache, they urge her to see a psychiatrist.

Exercising his professional mandate, the psychiatrist rules that she suffers from a “Borderline Personality Disorder,” manifested 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 (and this is truly a critique of the profession), he recommends institutionalization at the Claymoore Hospital.

Dealing with teenage girls gives Girl, Interrupted a novel angle, deviating sharply from classic Hollywood mellers about mentally ill femmes (usually housewives), such as The Snake Pit or The Three Faces of Eve. However, once Susanna lands at the asylum, the film assumes 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 half a dozen inmates, who are mostly types.

The clique of eccentrics includes Lisa (Jolie), a charming sociopath who has spent years at the asylum with repeated escapes and returns; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a pampered “Daddy’s girl,” with a pathological predilection for rotisserie chicken (her father owns a deli) and laxatives; and Polly (Elisabeth Moss), a victim whose scarred face is in sharp contrast with her sensitive heart.

As expected in such yarns, there’s a benevolent, non-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 the head psychiatrist, 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 double standard regarding female teenage sexuality.

Early on, Susanna is established as a girl who unabashedly loves sex, sleeping with a married teacher who’s the father of her classmate. There’s a good scene, in which she is confronted by his wife (Mary Kay Place) in an icecream parlor, while trying to remain anonymous, during an outing with the other inmates. Later on, Susanna gets romantically involved with Tobias (Jared Leto), a long-haired hippie who’s drafted to Vietnam, 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 labelled “compulsively promiscuous,” charges back at Dr. Wick: “How many girls a 17-year-old boy would 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 seemed content in recording the daily existence within the asylum, focusing on the formation of cliques and camaraderie among the girls, which is not a central issue in the memoir.

What’s more disturbing is that the film doesn’t bother to explain its title, which is taken from a Vermeer’s 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, of her second encounter with Vermeer’s work 16 years later with her new rich boyfriend.

Mangold, who made an auspicious directorial debut with the Sundance-premiered Heavy, disappointingly employs the same strategies that he used in that 1995 film and in his next effort, Cop Land. But the langueurs and deliberate pacing that were so crucial to dissection of uneventful life in Heavy, here (as in Cop Land) prove detrimental to the viewers’ involvement, resulting in a lopsided, often dramatically 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 persuades Susanna to escape and unknowingly turns out to be far more responsible than the doctors for Susanna’s ultimate rehabilitation. Redgrave and Goldberg are decent in roles that don’t allow much emotional range.

As befits the setting, production values are unadorned, most notably visuals by Jack Green, Clint Eastwood’s reliable lenser, who endows the story with rough but sharp look. Richard Hoover’s detailed design and Arianne Phillips’ tacky costumes contribute to an accurate recreation of the late 60s, also highlighted by popular songs of the era.