How much goodwill can a film earn just through the sheer strength of its performances alone? Without Christian Bale, The Fighter would have been a terribly mediocre boxing movie that simply rehashed every sports underdog cliche known to man. Without Colin Firth’s incendiary performance, The King’s Speech would never have been a Best Picture contender, let alone won. Sometimes I question whether I adore There Will Be Blood as much as I do because of the beautiful cinematography and the haunting tale of the spiritual rot of rampant greed or simply because Daniel Day Lewis gives arguably the greatest performance in the history of cinema (it’s probably a little of both). The exception to this rule is the Rob Marshall musical Nine which despite have 6 Academy Award winning actors/actresses in it was a nearly unwatchable piece of garbage. 1999’s Girl, Interrupted (adapted from the memoirs of the same name) is a film chock full of splendid female performances but abysmal pacing and an unfortunate tendency for melodramatics made it fall short of being a truly great film.
As mentioned earlier, Girl, Interruped is the true story of Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) who is sent to a mental institution in the late 1960’s after a failed suicide attempt. With little to no direction in life and a pariah in her home, Susanna is essentially forced into the hospital with little to no say in the matter. Despite her suicide attempts, Susanna is easily the most sane person in the hospital where she is placed in the same ward as Wizard of Oz obsessed Georgina (Carnivale‘s Clea Duvall), self-inflicted burn victim Polly (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss), withdrawn Daisy (Brittany Murphy) who suffers from an eating disorder (among other more significant problems), anorexic Janet, and sociopathic but charismatic Lisa (Angelina Jolie). While Susanna is initially drawn to the rebellious and magnetic Lisa and joins her in many of her little revolts against the system, tragedy eventually hits the group and Susanna is forced to re-evaluate exactly why she’s in this hospital in the first place and what she needs to do in order to get well.
Since she won her only Oscar for the film, it should come as no surprise that Angelina Jolie stole the show. Way back when I reviewed her Oscar-nominated role in Changeling, I puzzled over how Jolie could have ever won an Oscar because nothing in her career had impressed me, and not even her performance in Changeling which I thought wasn’t powerful enough for such a complex part. I obviously hadn’t seen Girl, Interrupted yet. She is able to flip between seductive charm, terrifying anger, and heart-wrenching grief like the mental pinball sociopath her character is. She oscillates between so many different modes and and emotions, and she never seems less than 100% genuine in any of them. If this remains the single greatest performance of her career, she should remain happy that she could ever have a high like this because nothing else I’ve ever seen from her has come anywhere close. Winona Ryder was fantastic as well, and I’ve long been of the opinion that if you want the role of a young, neurotic adult/teenager, she was the perfect choice. Watching Susanna’s emotional development throughout the film is one of its strong points, and Winona is responsible for much of the power. Clea Duvall and Brittany Murphy were also strong in their smaller roles.
However, despite the strength of the performances (and they were truly superb), the writing itself just couldn’t keep up with the talent on display. The film ultimately tries to subvert the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rebellion against the stern psychiatric community that is in vogue for most mental hospital films, but the film doesn’t do a convincing enough job at the end to sustain that theme. It spends much of the first two acts of the film gleefully showing Susanna finding her voice after her depression by bucking authority alongside Lisa, and while Lisa is obviously unhinged from the beginning, the movie never really makes me buy anything more than that Susanna is depressed, not some borderline personality disorder. About 3/4 of the way through the film, Susanna suddenly begins to view the people at the mental hospital as sympathetic comrades rather than some vestige of a society intent on keeping women down (which is how much of it is played at the beginning). I want to buy that these people helped cure her depression but the film didn’t do a good enough job of showing how that exactly came to be. I imagine the book goes into more detail about what led to Susanna’s recovery (and the author is a vocal critic of the film) so perhaps I should consider reading it in the future.
Matters were only compounded by the film’s inability to go more than ten minutes without turning a scene into something artificially sweet and trite. The film’s truest moments are painful and almost too raw to watch (Lisa bullying Daisy, Polly suffering a break down over her own lack of an ability to be loved because of her burns, Susanna’s last night in the ward), but far too often, it seems exceedingly obvious that scenes most likely weren’t in the original book as they lack the grit and hurt that permeates the rest of the film. Perhaps, it is unfair to compare this film to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest yet again, but even Cuckoo’s Nest subverted its own rebellious message when it ends with the essential lobotomization of Nicholson’s Randal McMurtry. Girl, Interrupted tries to combat that image from the very beginning, but its attempted cynicism at first is immediately drowned out by its disappointingly naive optimism at the end that seems to go against much of the darkness that preceded it.
For all fans of powerhouse acting, this is must see, and even Angelina Jolie’s most adamant detractors will be forced to recognize just how passionate and intense she is in this film. It also serves to re-affirm my theory that Winona Ryder could have been a much bigger star had it not been for her personal problems. The movie has its share of flaws, but it remained interesting through out and though I may nit-pick at its thematic inconsistencies, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Films with strong female casts are a discouragingly rare find, but Girl, Interrupted has great female performances coming at you from all sides. I wish it had been a little more raw and intense, but even with its problems, Girl, Interrupted is a movie guaranteed to make you think.
Final Score: B+