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GIRL, INTERRUPTED(director/writer: James Mangold; screenwriters: Lisa Loomer/Anna Hamilton Phelan/based on the book by Susanna Kaysen; cinematographer: Jack N. Green; editor: Kevin Tent; cast: Winona Ryder (Susanna Kaysen), Angelina Jolie (Lisa), Clea Duvall (Georgina), Brittany Murphy (Daisy), Elisabeth Moss (Polly), Jared Leto (Tobias Jacobs), Jeffrey Tambor (Dr. Melvin Potts), Vanessa Redgrave (Dr. Wick), Whoopi Goldberg (Valerie); Runtime: 127; Columbia Pictures / Red Wagon; 1999)
It’s difficult to make a film about depressive types that isn’t depressing.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s difficult to make a film about depressive types that isn’t depressing. “Girl, Interrupted” is such a disturbing film, based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her nearly two-year stay as an 18-year-old at McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass., in 1967. That is the same hospital where celebrity patients like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and James Taylor stayed.

The film is made lackluster by James Mangold’s (Cop/Heavy) heavy-handed direction and Winona Ryder’s earnest but shrill performance that might have captured how the real Susanna Kaysen was, but only added to the downbeat feel of the film. Ms. Ryder plays a neurotic who tried to kill herself by overdosing on aspirins and then was coerced by her parents to voluntarily sign herself into the private mental hospital, which in the film is called Claymoore. Her out-of-the-skin performance was a valiant effort to catch the essence of Susanna Kaysen, but failed to provide any tension or really show why she belonged there or if she was helped while there. Something got lost in the magical therapy she was receiving when shown on the screen, as it looked be-musingly like she was attending a sorority party that was going haywire or got trapped in one of a dozen other so-so “loony bin” pics I have seen over the years. Except this one was so dour and it took itself so seriously, that when it came time to deliver could only come up with a weak melodramatic climax of the antagonistic crazy girls going over-the-top in a love/hate relationship: as each is screaming out the truth about each other’s sickness.

The film works best as showing how a group of privileged young ladies from around the suburbs of Boston were having trouble fitting into their expected role in society because of their sensitivity, and how the changing times had an impact on their lives. We’re in the 1960s and there’s revolution in the air, in the form of the Vietnam protests, the Civil Rights protests, the new rock music, the sexual liberation revolution, and the dope to be freely smoked. The girls watch these movements from the comfort of the hospital’s TV room. A kindly nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg), who administers tough-love, placates and tries to help them through their despair. Two staff shrinks, Dr. Melvin Potts and Dr. Wick, are shown to be caring to a certain degree. Dr. Melvin Potts (Jeffrey Tambor) labels their illness and prescribes the drug medication, or in one case with horrible shock treatments. The resident genius is the compassionate Dr. Wick. She is the one Vanessa Redgrave plays without giving us anything to remember about her performance. As one patient says of her: “If you open up to her you get out, if you remain secretive you end up being a lifer.”

Susanna is diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, that generic psychiatric term for emotionally disturbed people whose causes and symptoms can’t be broken down finer. She’s the vic we’re supposed to care the most about. She’s also labeled as being promiscuous because she slept with her father’s friend and gave her boyfriend a blow job, and kissed the male orderly.

The girls that befriend Susanna suffer from more severe maladies than she does: her roommate Georgina (Clea Duvall) is a pathological liar and is addicted to watching The Wizard of Oz on TV, tearfully relating to Dorothy. Polly (Elisabeth Moss) is an incurable arsonist. The suicidal Daisy (Brittany Murphy) is a young abused woman obsessed with taking laxatives and Valium and who will only secretly eat her father’s roast chicken he sends her from his deli. Lisa (Angelina Jolie) is the ward’s leader and up-setter of order. She is tagged as being a sociopath and becomes Susanna’s best friend. She leads the night raid into the shrink’s office so that they can read their psychological reports and also talks Susanna into running away from the hospital with her. Lisa’s thing is to spare no one from the truth, which she lets out at the most inappropriate times or whenever the mood strikes her. She has a controlling personality and intimidates the weaker Susanna, but is analyzed by Susanna as mainly striking out at her own dead self.

Valerie, who is unflappable even upon hearing Susanna’s racial insults, sums up best what’s wrong with her: “You’re a lazy, self-indulgent, spoiled girl, trying to drive yourself crazy when you’re not. Anytime you want, you can choose to be sane.”

In my opinion, Susanna didn’t need a great shrink or to be in a mental institution, but should have joined the counterculture thing going on (drop-out and tune-in).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”