Benny and Joon (1993)
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.”
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.