Monday, May 09, 2011

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #8--Benny and Joon (1993)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

Johnny's a Lemonhead!
Before getting started with this month's tribute film, I need to mention that Johnny starred in another music video called, "It's a Shame about Ray" by the Lemonheads, a band led by his friend Evan Dando. I'm not sure exactly when this video was made, but it was around this time. This video isn't as elaborate as Tom Petty's mini-movie, "Into the Great Wide Open," but it's another good song. Besides, it's always nice to hear from the Lemonheads, and Comet--who just found the video in his MTV archives--would not let me move forward without them. The Kitties are already singing along. Here it is:

Head back to Hollywood. 
Benny and Joon is about a mentally ill woman named Juniper Pearl (Mary Stuart Masterson), who has lived with her brother Benny (Aidan Quinn), an auto mechanic, since their parents were killed in a car accident years ago. One night with his buddies, Benny's sister engages in a poker game that gets out of control. Before Benny finds out about it, she loses a bet. In the pot is his friend's "stupid" cousin Sam (Johnny Depp). Reluctantly, Benny honors the wager, and Sam becomes Juniper's new caretaker, replacing the one who had quit that morning.

Sam is a movie fanatic, dresses and does tricks like Buster Keaton, and has all sorts of other eccentric habits. When I first saw this movie, I actually thought that he, too, was mentally ill, but it turns out he's just dyslexic. In this new triangle, Sam and Joon (as he spells it) are pretty much on the same wavelength. Things inevitably get complicated.

It's just a movie!
When this movie came out, commercials seemed to be everywhere, and everyone was calling it the perfect "Date Movie." The label instantly annoyed me. I hadn't seen Benny and Joon in years when I  popped the DVD in for Johnny Kitties. Watching it now, I realize why the label bothers me so much--This movie tackles a serious subject.

They never explain what mental illness Joon has and instead focus mostly on the love story. Although Mary Stuart Masterson studied certain behavioral guidelines, director Jeremiah Chechik was afraid that naming any specific mental illness would bring a completely different dynamic to the film. This is probably true. Getting so specific could go horribly wrong, but I also think not knowing what's wrong with her is a missing element in the film. While Chechik wanted to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, I sometimes find situations too cute without knowing the seriousness behind them: After the last caretaker quits, for example, Benny is forced to run home from work because Joon is causing a traffic jam--wandering in the middle of the street wearing a snorkel mask and waving a ping pong paddle. Sam teaches Joon how to cook grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron, something later used to show how he and Joon will live happily ever after. By the time Joon has a real breakdown, I find it sudden, scary, and jarring.

Despite this unevenness, Benny and Joon is a very sweet film with some wonderful moments and unforgettable lines. The heart of it--and what I love about it--is the relationship among these three people, how they help each other in their own special ways. This focus is probably why the mental illness factor was left out. Benny and Joon are stuck: Benny can't do anything or go anywhere because he's always worried about Joon. Joon can't do anything or go anywhere because Benny is always worried about her. Sam, who needs a little help himself, brings absurdity, strangeness, and joy into that mix. Or, as Chechik puts it, "just the kind of nonsense these two people need."

Johnny channels Buster Keaton.
As a kid growing up in Florida, Johnny was hooked on silent movies, thanks to a TV channel dedicated to the genre. Johnny was already a lifelong fan of the era and Buster Keaton when he signed on for Benny and Joon. "The subtlety of the acting to clue the audience into Sam's character with so little said and so much expressed is a testament to Johnny Depp's work here," Chechik says.

Johnny puts his spin on Charlie Chaplin's Roll Dance.
Benny and Joon marked Johnny's most physical role yet. He worked with a circus trainer to learn tricks and Buster Keatonesque flips. "There's only one way to find out if you can throw your feet over your head," Johnny says. "That's by doing it." He also learned Charlie Chaplin's famous "Roll Dance" from The Gold Rush. "The 'Roll Dance' was more difficult than bashing myself around the park, just because it was so specific," he says. Chechik says that Johnny learned much, much more than what fit into the film. (He must be saving all this priceless footage for the Criterion Collection edition of the DVD, right? Right???) He confirms Johnny's preparation: "Johnny and I watched hours and hours and hours of Keaton films at various speed. We really studied these wonderful movies that Buster made, and Johnny was very inspired to really see what he could do with that kind of physical comedy and grace, and I think he did him proud." Johnny was nominated for another Golden Globe for this performance.

Though Johnny's role probably gets the most attention and his costars are wonderful, the supporting cast is solid. You'll find Julianne Moore and William H. Macy, early in their careers, along with Oliver Platt, C.C.H. Pounder, and Dan Hedaya.

Gordon has been practicing too.
The Kitties and I (and probably anyone else who has seen and loves this movie) are all in agreement about the moment to honor in our drawing. Actually, I think the last 10 minutes of Benny and Joon make the whole film worth it. After a psychotic episode, Joon ends up in the hospital and refuses to see anyone, but Sam and Benny work together to find her. Sam helps Benny into the locked ward where Joon is staying so that he can talk with his sister. Then, he finds his own way to catch a glimpse of his girl.

Johnny Kitties--Celebrating Johnny Depp--Benny and Joon (1993) [March 5, 2011]

As luck would have it, hanging off the side of the hospital building is the perfect contraption for Sam to use to reach Joon's window. Inside, Benny (Norman) and Joon (Mini) are discussing Joon's options with her doctor (played by C.C.H. Pounder/Ashes). Amid this serious conversation, Sam sudden appearance--swinging by in slow motion to sweeping orchestral music--is heartwarming comic relief genius.

I should mention that Benny and Joon's musical score by Rachel Portman is so perfectly suited for the film that the few pop songs they stuck in there don't seem necessary. I admit, though, that at the time I was completely obsessed with the Proclaimers' "500 Miles," the song that opens and closes the film. (Oh no--Now, it's in my head again.)

I only wish I could have somehow included Sam's swinging and Joon's reaction to seeing him in the same drawing. Sparked by Sam's surprise, Joon's joy is infectious. And, their hug when she gets discharged from the hospital is another beautiful moment. (That may deserve a third drawing, to complete this warm-and-fuzzy trilogy.) Yeah, the last 10 minutes of this movie are golden. But don't take my word for it: rent it, watch the whole thing, and see for yourself.

What's next?
Johnny gets a little too close to home and the world is introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio. What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Find out next month.


sona said...

Hi, I'm planning to watch this film as i love Johnny Depp and he looks incredible in this one. Also your drawings of the famous scenes with cats instead of people is fantastic:-D Maybe I'll put your post in my review.

Melissa Connolly said...

Thank you! Please let me know when you post your review; I'd love to read what you think.


sona said...

Thank you
I will:-)

sona said...

Hi, I've finally got to Benny and Joon and I love it! I need to get clothes as Sam wears in the film. Imdb says Johnny did the stunts himself.

Melissa Connolly said...

Hi Sona,

Great! I'm so glad you like it! And, yes, Johnny has really good outfits in that movie and did all his own Buster Keatonesque tricks. :-) I'm really bummed that the DVD doesn't show all that that he learned for the film. Apparently, only a small percentage got into the movie but I'm sure someone has all the other footage somewhere of Johnny practicing everything else! Come on, Criterion Collection, don't let me down!