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At the Movies: ‘Benny and Joon’

April 15, 1993 GMT

Undated (AP) _ There’s something vaguely unsettling about ″Benny & Joon,″ a film that’s billed innocuously as a ″charming, offbeat comedy″ that actually is about a woman suffering from mental illness.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the portrayal of Joon’s mental state is the fact that for much of the movie her condition seems so, well, charming. Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) spends her days in a huge airy house she shares with her brother. She paints vivid pictures; she likes to whip up shakes with Cap’n Crunch cereal and wear a snorkel and mask.

She keeps her brother Benny (Aidan Quinn) busy by incessantly phoning him at his car repair shop with dispatches about how much peanut butter they have. Perhaps the only hints that things are amiss are Joon’s inability to keep a housekeeper (they keep quitting on her) and her penchant for pyrotechnics.

But aside from those two personality blips, we see Joon passionately painting her wildly colorful canvases - layering goopy globs of paint on top of more paint - in her sunny studio. One might assume from this portrait of madness that managing mental illness is as easy as enrolling in an arts and crafts class.

Only Joon is not merely ″unbalanced″ as the press material calls her condition. She hears voices and suffers from hallucinations. At one point, she has a violent - and public - breakdown. Let’s face it, the poor girl is probably schizophrenic.

And into her chaotic world breezes Sam (Johnny Depp), a gentle soul clad in Edwardian dress with a gift for the physical comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. He seems intrigued and bemused by Joon’s condition and readily accepts her, oblivious to the harsh realities of her handicap.

Benny, however, recognizes that he will have no life outside of watching over his sister (their parents were killed in a car accident that is revealed in a heavy-handed, melodramatic flashback worthy of a made-for-TV movie). As her guardian, he knows he will never date, marry or find happiness on his own. Still, he refuses to just ″farm her out″ to an institution.

There are meaty issues at the heart of this film: Just how do you care for loved ones who can’t cope on their own, and where do you draw the line when it comes to putting one person’s needs over your own? Can the mentally ill maintain a ″normal″ love affair? There’s a great range of loyalty and familial love and guilt at stake here.

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But the film’s downfall is that those issues are just blithely painted over like one of Joon’s canvases - schlock heaped onto more schlock.

When things unravel for Joon and the depth of her emotional and mental problems are revealed, for instance, the plot twists to the absurd. In the midst of her crisis - for which she’s been hospitalized - it’s decided to let her live by herself in her own apartment 3/8 It seems that the people with the most muddled thinking here must have been the screenwriter and the director.

Despite the film’s problems, mention should be made of Depp’s fine performance. Once again, he revels in his gift for telegraphing the most subtle feeling with just the flicker of his eyes or the pursing of his lips.

Quinn, on the other hand, with his perpetually bleary eyes, seems to be sleepwalking through his part with contemplative stares that border on comatose. Masterson is convincing enough as the struggling Joon, though hardly memorable.

C.C.H. Pounder plays Joon’s doctor, who acts as something of an accomplice to the ridiculousness of the plot.

″Benny and Joon″ was directed by Jeremiah Chechik and produced by Susan Arnold and Donna Roth. The screenplay was by Barry Berman. The Metro Goldwyn Mayer release is rated PG.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.