Judge Gordon Sullivan may do a lot of pratfalls, but he's not that big on silent movies.
Our review of Man In The Moon / Benny And Joon, published June 8th, 2006, is also available.
A romance on the brink of reality
Shakespeare said, "Love is merely a madness, and I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do." He's hardly the only writer to link love and insanity throughout history. It's a little surprising, then, that more romantic comedies don't exploit this obvious connection between the besotted and the crazy. Instead, we get "wacky," or "quirky" characters, people who aren't quite insane in any modern sense, nor mad in a traditional sense, but just different enough to be interesting. Get two quirky characters together and filmmakers have a recipe for romcom success. That seems to be what inspired Benny & Joon, a slight but sugary confection of romantic comedy conventions and excellent acting.
Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson, Some Kind of Wonderful) is a mentally ill artist living with her brother, Benny (Aidan Quinn, Legends of the Fall), a mechanic. Joon is getting increasingly difficult for Benny to handle, and her doctor wants to put her in a group home. Then the nephew of a friend, Sam (Johnny Depp, Cry Baby) comes to town. He's a quiet young man who's obsessed with silent movie stars. He doesn't fit in, either, and he just may be the influence that Joon needs in her life.
First, Benny and Joon deserves credit for at least attempting something like realism within the constraints of the romantic comedy. Sure, Aidan Quinn is too pretty to be a small-town mechanic, and if Joon were that mentally ill, love would be the last thing on her mind, but this is generally a film that's mature about its subject matter. The tension between Benny and Joon (as well as their obvious love for one another) is handled with remarkable aplomb, and the relationships (especially the romantic ones) feel a little more real than the "love at first sight" of typical romantic comedies.
Second, Benny and Joon deserves credit for some seriously inspired casting. Mary Stuart Masterson manages to be both weird and strangely sympathetic as Joon. By the end of the film, I feel like she's won over all the characters, and everyone wishes she were their sister. Just looking at him, Aidan Quinn seems miscast, too pretty as the small-town guy. However, as the film unfolds he shows an earthy, everyman style that his work in more romantic films (like Legends of the Fall) hides. Then, there's Johnny Depp. At the time he was a young actor trying to shed his heartthrob image as quickly as possible. Appearances in Cry Baby and Edward Scissorhands helped, but Benny and Joon was the film that really showed the stupendous range that he's capable of. The rest of the cast (including comedic favorites William H. Macy and Oliver Platt, not to mention Julianne Moore) is equally well-chosen, creating a cast of characters that make me reluctant to leave them when their 98 minutes is up.
Benny and Joon comes to Blu-ray in the same low-key way it came to DVD. The AVC-encoded transfer is simple, but not stunning. Colors pop, but detail isn't as strong as I'd like, though there are no compression or artefacting problems to speak of. The DTS-HD stereo track shows of the film's dialogue perfectly, with a surprising amount of directionality for a stereo mix. Extras are ported over from the DVD. They start with a commentary by director Jeremiah Chechik. He's obviously proud of the film and has some good production stories to share, even if he's a bit slow in getting things started. Then we get two deleted scenes (with optional commentary) that includes some nice character bits. We also get make-up tests (with commentary, which just seems weird) and a stunt reel of Johnny Depp performing his silent comedy feats. Finally, The Proclaimers' video for "500 Miles" and the film's trailer round out the disc.
For all its strengths, Benny and Joon never quite connects. Perhaps the problem is that it's a little too mature, which never lets the characters revel in the madness of love. Or maybe it's not mature enough, and doesn't deal effectively with the toll that the mentally ill can have on their family. I'm not really sure, but as much as I enjoy Benny and Joon while the film is on, it's a film that just too easy to forget once the credits have rolled.
Benny and Joon is a sweet little movie with an amazing cast. It's certainly worth a rental for romantic comedy fans, or anyone who likes the actors involved. Upgrading the DVD is going to be a tough decision. The extras haven't been upped, but the video improvement over the old DVD is pretty substantial.
A little crazy, but not guilty.
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