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Friday Film Review: Benny and Joon

Benny and Joon (1993)
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Grade: B

I had never seen this movie until just now having avoided it because of the issue of Mary Stuart Masterson’s character’s mental illness. Having a mentally ill character fall in love and move in with her boyfriend? It just seemed too cute or in avoidance of reality to me. But something made me put it in my Netflix queue as a “what the hell, why not?” film and, surprisingly, it works for me.

Benny and Joon actually aren’t the ones who fall in love since they are brother and sister played by Aiden Quinn and Masterson. Benny owns a car repair garage while younger sister Joon stays at home under the care of a housekeeper. When she’s not stressed out and takes her medication, she usually does well but there are times when her illness shows as it does when she runs off yet another “housekeeper.”

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A few days later, Benny takes Joon with him to a neighborhood poker game where they bet all kinds of oddball things including coaxial cable, salad shooters and Deanna Durbin records. In this game, one of the other players Mike (Joe Grifasi) bets his weird cousin Sam (Johnny Depp). Joon loses and has to take Sam off Mike’s hands. Benny is appalled at the bet but eventually agrees to it when he sees how badly the cousins get along.

Sam, who is dyslexic and idolizes the old silent screen stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, moves in and starts to loosen up the household. But as he and Joon begin to fall in love, will Benny be able to accept the new reality or is he too tightly stuck in the role he’s played for too long?

The director states openly that the movie is a fairy tale. And that is the way it works for me. If it were played too seriously – though there are plenty of serious moments – all kinds of thoughts would probably have gone through my head as I imagined Joon and Sam trying to actually live on their own and face the realities of life and Joon’s illness. But as it is, the two of them put together manage to have most of the skills needed to function as a whole. Joon is not always hearing voices and acting out and when she’s not, she’s literate, a talented painter and able to do for herself. Sam might not be able to read and write well, and often seems to live more in unreality than does Joon, but he can focus on the most important things such as when he asks Benny just how sick Joon really is. Once he knows that, he can deal with anything else.

Aiden Quinn has the thankless task of raining on the young lover’s parade and being the Voice of Reason. But he’s also stuck in a rut in his life having devoted much of his youth to taking care of and worrying about Joon. He needs freedom as much as does Joon but it takes him longer to realize it. He seems genuinely shocked when Joon snaps at him that he needs her to be ill – in order to give him a purpose in life – but we in the audience have already seen this in the way he puts off potential relationships due to his long seated fear of how to work Joon into any of them.

I’ve seen plenty of reviews of the film that criticize it for gimmicks but to me it avoided going for the obvious and instead seemed more subtle and gentle in its treatment of these characters. Joon’s mentall illness isn’t mentioned by name and that isn’t the sum total of who she is. Masterson makes her a person who just happens to be mentally ill and not merely a schizophrenic. Quinn lets us see beneath the controlling persona of Benny to the brother who loves his sister and is trying his best to see to her needs. While Depp is able to pull of wonderful physical comedy without coming off as just a clown.

I think this is a film that people either love or hate. Either it will charm you or make you roll your eyes. You’ll see it through to the end or turn it off wanting those minutes of your life back. For me it works, it charms and it delights.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

16 Comments

  1. Tee
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 07:28:43

    Agree with you totally, Jayne. When I first saw it quite a while ago, I was surprised that I enjoyed it, in spite of its theme. Very well done. Johnny Depp, as usual, turns in a very creative performance!

  2. Jayne
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 07:51:30

    @Tee: “Very well done. Johnny Depp, as usual, turns in a very creative performance!”

    – I think he’s great in this film. And the physical comedy he pulls off is amazingly fun to watch.

  3. Darlene Marshall
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 07:51:31

    Part of what helped me accept this movie on its face was the setting. Even the mental institutions looked like a Candyland village nuthouse. The scenery, the staging of the houses, Depp’s wardrobe, they all whispered “make believe” to me, so I could get over it and enjoy the ride.

    After that it was easier to slap down the annoying voices of reality in my head saying, “What if they have kids? Is there money in trust if Benny dies? Did he set up a guardianship?” I suspect it comes from being married for so long to an estates and trusts lawyer.

  4. Jayne
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 08:05:04

    @Darlene Marshall: I was more than willing to buy into the fairy tale at the end and not think into the future for these two. Doing that would have ruined my happy buzz!

  5. Darlene Marshall
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 08:17:23

    @Jayne–A friend once said to me, “You’re the only person I know who makes sure your pirates have a good retirement plan before they get married.”

    I can’t help it. It’s the way my brain is wired.[g]

  6. MarieC
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 09:31:06

    Great review!

    @Tee – I totally agree. I didn’t think I would enjoy the film, but found it fun and light.

    But anything with Aidan Quinn…woo-hoo!

  7. Tee
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 09:41:14

    MarieC said: But anything with Aidan Quinn…woo-hoo!

    Oh, yes. Another agreement here!

  8. Bonnie Dee
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 09:52:58

    I may have watched this movie more than any other in my collection (except maybe What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). It’s one of those where I could quote almost any part of it. This is definitely a family favorite from way back. Yes there’s a fairytale quality but at the same time I think the subject matter is treated seriously and with a subtle touch. I honestly can’t see NOT liking this movie so count me among the big lovers of Benny and Joon.

  9. Darlynne
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 10:53:37

    They had me at the bread dance. Depp had to have been a fan of Chaplin’s because he captured that performance–while making it his own–so well. Great review.

  10. Karen W.
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 22:03:56

    I LOVE “Benny & Joon.” It has been a favorite of mine for a while, and I think it’s the movie that made me fall in love with Johnny Depp. (Aidan Quinn ain’t bad either! )

  11. Meg
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 22:21:53

    For Darlene Marshall. Benny and Joon was filmed in Spokane, Washington. I’ve been to a lot of the places in that movie…

  12. dri
    Nov 06, 2010 @ 04:05:46

    Oh, I’m so glad you liked this film, Jayne! As a massive Depp fan from way back, this is one of my most cherished films … and you’ve just reminded me how long it’s been since I watched it. Actually, I don’t think I’ve even watched it as an adult, and an adult who writes, no less.

    It’s the only film that’s ever made me curious about Buster Keaton. And I still am! *lol*

  13. Jayne
    Nov 06, 2010 @ 04:39:31

    @Darlynne: Oh, love the bread dancing!

  14. Jayne
    Nov 06, 2010 @ 04:44:07

    @Meg: I fell in love with the house used in the movie. I heard or read or something that the location scouts just happened to find it and talk the owners into letting them use it.

  15. Jayne
    Nov 06, 2010 @ 04:48:54

    @dri: I’ve watched some Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films but need to check out some more. If anyone has any recs…?

  16. Little Lamb Lost
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 01:07:39

    I had forgotten this film and how much I enjoyed it. Am so glad to be reminded, must dust off my copy and pop it in the machine. Loved Sam’s antics, the smashed potatoes and The Proclaimers I’m Gonna Be (500 miles).

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