Directed By: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Written By: Barry Berman, Leslie McNeil
Produced By: Susan Arnold, Donna Roth
Cast: Aidan Quinn, Mary Stuart Masterson, Johnny Depp, Julianne Moore, Oliver Platt, William H. Macy
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 98 minutes
Review Date: August 13, 2010
“When a boat rows ashore, the sea has spoken.”
When a movie leaves you feeling content, full and warm, you know you just saw a fantastic film. Benny & Joon does all of the above — plus, it leaves you with songs stuck in your head and a laugh-out-loud Johnny Depp performance.
Benny (Aidan Quinn) and Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) are a brother and sister duo who live together mainly because Joon is mentally ill. You’re never really told what Joon has, but you see her quirks and wonder what is going on in her head. Benny sacrificed much of his life for Joon and continues to as her sole provider and caregiver. When he’s at work, he has to find help to care for Joon, which proves to be quite the impossible feat.
After Joon gets in deep in a poker game with Benny’s friends, she ends up “winning” a fellow player’s eccentric cousin Sam (Johnny Depp). (Note: These poker games include household items or personal belongings as chips; so naturally, a human became part of the ante.) Benny tries his best to ensure Sam doesn’t end up at his place, but alas, he eventually does. While Sam doesn’t have any mental illnesses, per se, he is immediately intriguing as his dress, talk, mannerisms and general lifestyle are anything but the ordinary.
Sam breaks out into these elaborate, mime-like scenes, which are fantastic to watch as you laugh and awe at his spectacle. The music score accompanying these performances just adds to the enjoyment of the scenes. Naturally, Joon becomes intrigued by Sam and vice versa for Sam. They begin quite a fantastic friendship anyone would be envious of. In the meantime, Benny continues to wonder about Sam’s motives but eventually warms up to him after an elaborate stunt performance in the park.
When selecting favorite moments from the film, anything dealing with Sam is a favorite. It’s so refreshing to see Depp in a role where he isn’t caked in make-up (only two other films come to mind: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Blow), so you truly watch his acting chops instead of his outlandish appearance.
Another character I truly enjoyed was Ruthie (Julianne Moore). Ruthie seems to be Sam’s only friend in the town, prior to meeting Benny and Joon. Her warm personality can be felt through the screen and into your bones. Eventually, she and Benny begin a relationship, and the way she holds her own in it is just fantastic. Too often, we see women get caught up in these relationship roles and lose themselves (and their minds). But Ruthie stays true to herself, while still playing some games with Benny when he deserves it.
The film has many metaphors throughout the piece, but a personal favorite (and very relatable one) was cheese. Joon tells Benny while Sam makes grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron: “Some cultures are defined by their relationship with cheese.” Just like cheese takes time to mature, so does Joon. Her transformation from helplessness to fully-functioning adult will fill you with euphoria, and the music in the scene will just add to the emotion. As Sam shows us, there’s clearly more than one way to make a grilled cheese, just like there’s more than one way to live your life in society. Life is stinky, messy, full of holes, hard and sweet, just like cheese.
Watching Benny and Joon’s relationship evolve during the film makes you feel like you’re watching a father-daughter relationship. Benny clearly depends on Joon’s illness, so he continually has excuses and “outs” to keep him from enjoying his age, friends, and society.
When the film ends, you can’t help but smile and revel in the fact the past hour and a half was a great one spent with a fantastic film. In the movie world, it’s rough sailing with some films, but thankfully, Benny & Joon know just how to cast their sails.
Note: Be on the lookout for the diner scene where Joon explains why she isn’t a fan of raisins, I couldn’t stop laughing or hitting skip-back on the DVD player…
Hanna Soltys is a green tea drinker and film critic living in Chicago.