Benny & Joon (1993)

Benny and Joon is a 1993 feelgood romantic comedy/promotional vehicle for the acting talents of the then rising star Johnny Depp, about the lighthearted and loving moments of living with nondescript and nonthreatening mental illness. No, don’t run away! It’s all very well intended and far to homely to cause outright offence; it’s simply “of its time” trying-to-be-considerate offensive and a lightweight take on a heavyweight issue. That makes it better, right??

The story starts with the affable and hardworking garage owner Benny (played by Aidan Quinn) who lives with his affable and playfully mentally ill sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), in a pleasantly anywhere town populated by other affable and hardworking people. He and his affable friends, including Oliver Platt and Dan Hedaya giving amazing supporting turns as nice people, live the kind of life that anyone can relate to; assuming they have a sister at home who chews her way through home care nurses, sometimes holds up traffic with a ping-pong bat whilst wearing a snorkel and mask, and occasionally sets fire to things. Sprinkle on top a very caring doctor trying to convince Benny to send Joon to a very nice care home, and multiple attractive women all but throwing their undies at him, and you’ll be heart warmed by how hard Benny works to keep his smile going.

Eventually into this slice-of-life world, Sam arrives! Played by Johnny Depp, who gets top-billing but who’s character isn’t in the title nor carries the main story line, he’s a semi-illiterate heart-throb who likes dressing us as Buster Keaton and lives his life like he was in a 1920s physical-comedy. Oh yes, and he’s very affable. Inevitably, very inevitably, Sam and Joon start a movie odd-ball relationship because that’s what two oh-so-wackily troubled people apparently have to do. It hits all the required moments of rejection, acceptance, and then very awkward romantic love (which is actually handled really well, in and of itself). This new relationship is the driving force for Benny being all kinds of worried about his life changing, or more cynically having to think that his sister may be more than just her issues.

Just in case you can’t work out the ending from all that I won’t give it away. Let’s just say that it’s all quite affable. Sadly, it’s also without any real tension and with a sloppy approach to the main concept of two people with difficulties falling in love.

To kick things off, we have Joon’s psychiatric problems. They have a consistency to them that means it’s likely a diagnosis could be given, but the film never bothers to clearly explain what is wrong with her. This means that the audience never knows what the stakes are for her, or how much agency she really has. The first makes it difficult to be concerned about the ever looming, plot driving, “threat” of her moving to a care home, as for all we know it could be the best choice possible. It’s repeatedly made clear that it’s her choice what happens, which doesn’t sound that threatening, and so the only impending doom is the inexplicable deadline for applying.

Without knowing Joon’s situation it’s hard to know how justified Benny is in getting angry at her relationship with Sam turning physical. It’s not clear if she is able to consent to such things, so the last third of the film loses any emotional anchoring. Ambiguity can be good in these things, but here its outright confusion. Things are further muddled by a very brief flashback that vaguely explains the absence of any parents or other family from the situation. It feels like it’s supposed to be an emotional hook, but it gives no details as to what actually happened or how it actually affected Benny or Joon. Throw in frequent lucid states between oddball behaviour and it all points to a Hollywood diagnoses of “kooky, with occasional lethality”. The movie ends up playing like it’s halfway between wanting to clumsily show that “people with disorders are just like us, kind of” as well as trying to avoid having to do any real research into the subject. It also gives Joon a very unwanted touch of the magical pixie girl, which furthers removes the chance of any serious observations on mental health.

Sam also suffers from a similar lack of definition, although Depp does at least get to show off more range than Materson’s excellent but constricted performance. No explanation is offered for his silent-movie affectations, and the closest we get to an actual issue with him is an inconsistent level of illiteracy. He’s just strange, quite possibly for strangeness’s sake. For all the making grilled sandwiches on an ironing board and doing an impromptu comedy routine in the park he’s also into heavy grunge music and bad violent horror movies. He’ll perform whenever an opportunity appears, and loves a crowd, but seems intent on getting a regular job in a shop. Why? Pretty much so he can be an outcast that happens to be Joon’s soulmate and help her avoid the terror that is professional medical care.

This all gets tiresome, very quickly. The charm, the quirkiness, the lack of a real antagonist or threat: it just all feels like a stage to have two people be a bit spooky on. They do it very well – heck, there isn’t a bad performance in the whole movie – but it’s a very bland and condescendingly ill-defined 98 minutes of rolling tepidity. Yes, there are moments of touching positivity and it would feel like kicking a puppy in the face to say the overall message wasn’t filled with good intentions. But it just drags out without anything to really stir up the pot. Everything has been so smoothed out and nice that even the orderlies in the hospital are likable and considerate to those staying there.

Someone out there will love it, probably for all the reasons listed above, and it’s certainly easy enough viewing. If you want Johnny Depp doing a couple of very good Buster Keaton routines then find a highlights video on YouTube. But if you want anything that even starts to deal with the realities of mental health or outsider romances then look elsewhere. Personally, rewatching resulted in my putting it in the trash. Times have moved on, and whatever this was trying to achieve is now irrelevant.

The Raggedyman

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