[Screen It]

(1999) (Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie) (R)

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Drama: A teen and those attending to her try to figure out whether she's truly crazy or just confused as she spends time in a psychiatric hospital during the 1960s.
It's the late 1960s and 17-year-old Susanna Kaysen (WINONA RYDER) has just tried to kill herself with an overdose of aspirin. Unsure of herself and the rapidly changing world around her, Susanna agrees to admit herself into Claymoore Hospital, a psychiatric institute for troubled young women.

There she meets head nurse Valerie (WHOOPI GOLDBERG), as well as her "Wizard of Oz" obsessed roommate, Georgina (CLEA DUVALL). She also meets Polly (ELISABETH MOSS) a young woman who previously tried to burn off half her face and Daisy (BRITTANY MURPHY), a pampered "daddy's girl" with a thing for saving rotisserie chicken carcasses under her bed.

It's Lisa (ANGELINA JOLIE), however, who most fascinates and intimidates Susanna. A charming, but rebellious delinquent, Lisa's repeatedly busted out of Claymore. Upon her latest return she teaches Susanna "the ropes" about how to survive in such an institution and deal with the psychiatrists there, including Dr. Potts (JEFFREY TAMBOR) and Dr. Wick (VANESSA REDGRAVE).

They try to make sense of Susanna's behavior that includes her promiscuous ways with Tobias Jacobs (JARED LETO), a would-be draft dodger, as well as the husband of one of her former classmates and one of the institution's orderlies.

As Susanna's friendships and deep bonds with the girls grow, she must try to sort out her sanity and place in the world, while also dealing with the increasingly volatile Lisa who may yet get her into even greater trouble.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Although times have changed and the general public has become more sensitive to issues regarding them, for the most part many people still shy away from, or downright avoid, those who are mentally challenged, incapacitated or are otherwise neurotic or psychotic. At the same time, however, that same public seems to love watching such people when they appear as fictional characters on the big screen.

While the reasons for that disparity are varied and certainly debatable, the most obvious relate to intrigue and "safety." For starters, such characters are unique in that they're outside the realm of the boring old normalcy that most of us live with day in and day out.

Since we're all surrounded by the average Joes and Janes of the world, someone who stands out - usually in an extravagant or at least some sort of different way - will always draw our interest. That said, we don't always seem to want to personally encounter such people in person - particularly the psychopaths - and "meeting" them in the theater is a safe way to vicariously experience their unique personalities.

As such, the history of the cinema is filled with a variety of such characters. Who will forget Jack Nicholson as McMurphy in 1975's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Joanne Woodward as the title character in 1957's "The Three Faces of Eve," Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt in 1988's "Rain Man," and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs."

Of course the list goes on and on and obviously includes a plethora of killers and other such sociopathic beings. What stands out is that many of those who portray such characters -- including all of the previously mentioned performers - rake up the nominations and awards for their performances. It also seems that the "nuttier" the characters are (pardon the non clinical tone), the more fascinating they become to audiences and award voters alike.

Save for one particular performance, the characters in James Mangold's adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's 1993 novel, "Girl, Interrupted," don't make such an impression for good or bad. Sure, there's the standard range of bizarre and somewhat disturbing behavior, but this juvenile infested flick is more akin to "One Fell From the Cuckoo's Nest" than its better known, Oscar winning predecessor.

Based on Kaysen's two-year stay in a late 1960's Massachusetts psychiatric hospital, the memoir of sorts hit a strong note with young female readers and spent a great deal of time on the various best seller lists. Although I'm not familiar with that novel, it appears that whatever made it so special is mostly missing from its big screen adaptation. While it has its moments and some decent performances, the film feels as lethargic and unfocused as a patient doped up on tranquilizers and never strays too far from the stereotypical conventions of this genre.

What it does have going for it, however, is the teen angle. Of course other films have portrayed mental illness in that same age bracket - notably 1977's "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden" with Kathleen Quinlan as a teen schizophrenic - but this film's target audience has probably never even heard of that one. Since most such films usually portray adults in such situations, having the protagonist as a seventeen-year-old does put something of a fresh spin on the genre.

Thus, who better to serve as our guide into 1960s style dementia than two-time Oscar nominated actress Winona Ryder. With disillusioned teenage roles making up part of her career, Ryder feels quite natural in the role and we get to experience the world of the crazy and disturbed through her eyes. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before we realize that she's only confused and not really crazy.

Considering that and the fact that writer/director James Mangold ("Cop Land," "Heavy") along with co-screenwriters Lisa Loomer (TV films "Road to Kensington," "Hearts Afire") and Anna Hamilton Phelan ("Gorillas in the Mist," "Mask") never really offer or examine anything new, the film ultimately has nowhere to go. While it does explore the protagonist's awakening to the fact that she's okay and shows her growing friendships with the other girls on the ward, none it ever rises far above the TV movie of the week conventions and thus never becomes terribly compelling.

The presence and performances of the two leads, however, make the film bearable. As previously mentioned, Ryder ("Heathers," "Little Women") delivers a credible performance, obviously helped by that wide-eyed, incredulous look she so believably hones. The only drawback to her performance - and stemming from the way her character is drawn - is that she's a mostly passive being. While that may work in novels, the big screen loves and necessitates proactive personalities and her perfectly understandable performance sucks a great deal of energy from the proceedings.

Of course, Angelina Jolie ("The Bone Collector," "Playing by Heart") completely counters that with her over the top performance as the ward's most crazed and charismatic patient. There's little doubt that Jolie steals the show, what with her prowling around like a caged tigress in search of her next victim, and there's an outside chance she could possibly hear her name announced come Oscar nomination time.

The rest of the performances clearly fall into the supportive roles and don't get a great deal of screen time. That said, the most notable is Brittany Murphy ("Drop Dead Gorgeous," "Clueless") as one of the more troubled patients with a penchant for chicken carcasses and a troubling relationship with her father.

Whoopi Goldberg ("Ghost," "The Color Purple") is decent as the standard, no nonsense but wise head nurse, while Jeffrey Tambor ("Meet Joe Black," HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show") and Vanessa Redgrave ("Howards End," "Julia") make brief appearances as facility doctors. Jared Leto ("Fight Club," "Prefontaine") has a brief stint as Susanna's wayward boyfriend of sorts.

While passable and palatable, the film never truly clicks in telling its story or showing us something we haven't already previously seen. That doesn't mean that it's bad - it's just that it only competently retreads familiar material. Featuring a few interesting scenes and a "show me the awards" performance by Jolie, the film simply and seemingly doesn't posses whatever made Kaysen's novel so fascinating and memorable. As such, we give "Girl, Interrupted" a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 10, 1999 / Posted January 14, 2000

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