Directed by James Mangold
Written by James Mangold, Lisa Loomer, and Anna Hamilton Phelan based on the memoirs by Susanna Kaysen
With Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy, Elizabeth Moss, Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg
Mental illness: if all else fails to be entertaining, throw in some crazy people to liven things up. Girl, Interrupted does just that. Saddled with a weak plot, the film rests on conflicts between the characters to maintain dramatic credibility. Although compelling and even visually arresting, Girl, Interrupted comes across as simply melodramatic.
As the adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, the movie portrays the psychological struggles of Susanna (Winona Ryder). A privileged teenager, Kaysen is diagnosed with an unclear personality disorder after a suicide attempt and placed in a mental hospital. As she copes with therapy, Susanna not only struggles to heal herself, but struggles to define what is wrong with her.
In the best moments of the movie, Winona Ryder brings depth and intensity to the vulnerability of her character. Unfortunately, some of the worst moments are those in which she tries to be strong, which come across as disjointed. For example, Susanna’s choice to go back to the mental institution instead of going to Canada with her pseudo-boyfriend (Toby, played by Jared Leto) seems strangely out of place. Perhaps these scenes appear disjointed because most of the movie is filled with so much angst.
Other characters, notably sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie), provide an increasingly varied range of believable emotions. As the iconoclastic figure in the ward, Jolie’s character provides the majority of the conflict in the movie. However, instead of promoting strength in the other patients (a la Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Jolie asserts psychological control. The ward nurse Valerie is played very understatedly by Whoopi Goldberg. Although omnipresent in the turning points of the movie, her character is used in a disappointingly limited capacity, almost refraining from acting. Surprisingly, though, one of the most complex characters is one of the most minor. Daisy, played by Brittany Murphy of Clueless fame, is not so much insane as compulsive or even just odd.
Ultimately, though, the small conflicts provided by Lisa and Daisy (and even Toby and other random characters) are hardly enough to amount to a plot. The movie instead focuses on the emotions of the characters and life in the ward. But the emotions of the characters and life in the ward are topics that have already been portrayed brilliantly. In fact, The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest both contain these as structure, but not as the plot itself.
The movie tries to substitute for a plot using several dramatic elements. The first of these is flashbacks. One of the most unique parts of the film, the flashbacks are all but completely wiped out by the second half of the movie. If they continued, perhaps the movie would have seemed a bit more interesting. Also, the use of lighting provides an amazing tone to most of the movie, while the colors and shadows of night-time scenes set a very clear mood. The use of shadows is highly reminiscent of black and white movies for fostering tension and tragedy.
Another detail that makes the movie entertaining, if nothing else, is the use of familiar colleges. In one flashback, for example, Susanna is hit on by an arrhythmically dancing nerd, introducing himself as being from MIT.
Overall, the movie has little in the way of substantial plot and is filled with melodrama. However, there is decent (though not spectacular) acting, and some details that make the movie worthwhile. Girl, Interrupted does its best to exploit the strange conflicts that occur in a mental hospital, but falls short of doing the job of making a compelling movie.