Based on Susanna Kaysen’s account of being trapped in a mental institution in the late ’60s, director James Mangold‘s “Girl, Interrupted” is a semi-involving tale of identity and belonging featuring a solid performance from Winona Ryder and a spirited, star-making turn from Angelina Jolie.
Ryder stars as Susanna herself, an unhappy, upper-middle-class high school graduate uncertain about her place in American society circa 1967-68. While being moody, depressed and promiscuous might seem normal in the 1990s, in the late ’60s, it’s enough for Susanna’s parents to seriously wonder about their daughter.
After chasing a bottle of alcohol with a bottle of aspirin, the girl’s psychiatrist immediately diagnoses her as a borderline personality and subsequently commits her to Claymoore Hospital. That’s where the opening line of the movie comes in: “Maybe I was really crazy, maybe it was the ’60s, or just a girl, interrupted.” For those wondering about the phrase, it’s taken from a Vermeer painting (“Girl Interrupted at Her Music”), which played an integral part in Susanna’s development.
Unfortunately, the movie chooses not to delve into the ironies and social details of Susanna’s memoirs. Instead, the script by Mangold, Anna Hamilton Phelan and Lisa Loomer opts to focus on Susanna’s interactions with her fellow mental patients and their nostalgic antics. They laugh. They fight. They sneak out at night to bowl a few frames in the basement.
The characters are mostly presented as types. There’s Polly (Elisabeth Moss), a burn victim who has trouble coping with her disfigurement; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a rich, little girl with a sordid family history and a weird obsession with chicken; and Susanna’s roommate, Georgina (Clea Duvall), who seems fairly normal. Watching over this female version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are a stern but fair nurse named Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) and, in a few scenes, a philosophy-spouting head psychiatrist named Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave).
The real flesh and blood character of the film is wild and rowdy Lisa (Jolie), an eccentric sociopath who instigates and motivates her co-patients to achieve her own end. A constant escapee from the institution, it’s Lisa with whom Susanna becomes most connected. They’re fast friends and partners in raucous behavior, but Susanna will learn a thing or two about Lisa’s ability to be clever and ever so cold-hearted.
Both Ryder and Jolie are impressive in their roles. Ryder is required mostly to be somber and react to Jolie‘s more flamboyant behavior, but she’s quite believable as a spoiled princess whose depression has caused her to lose touch with reality. She’s never really sick; she just needs a wake-up call.
The Jolie character provides a wake-up call and more, with the actress delivering another memorable performance on the heels of her award-winning work in “Gia” and “George Wallace.” Never over the top but always teetering on the high wire, Jolie mesmerizes in all of her scenes and should garner plenty of notices for the part. It’s her performance as the mad, raving, charismatic ringleader that gets the movie’s blood pumping.
That’s a good thing, because the direction of “Girl, Interrupted” is more than a few paces too deliberate. Third-time feature director Mangold worked miracles with this sort of slow-building drama in his debut movie, “Heavy,” and the underrated “Copland.” But here, middling is as middling does. The episodic adventures of Susanna and her crew of misfits aren’t enough to sustain interest, especially when the plotting comes across as burdensome as Susanna’s weary attempts to get out of bed.
Cinematographer Jack Green lenses the movie with an appropriately sparse and clinical look and feel. A more probing or fully rounded, character-driven script that examines the institutional practices and mores of ’60s society would fit perfectly. Instead, the film achieves only moderate success, balanced precariously on strong performances from its two lead stars.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and content relating to drugs, sexuality and suicide.
A Columbia Pictures presentation. Director James Mangold. Screenplay Anna Hamilton Phelan, James Mangold and Lisa Loomer. Memoirs Susanna Kaysen. Producers Cathy Konrad and Douglas Wick. Director of photography Jack N. Green. Editor Kevin Tent. Music Mychael Danna. Production designer Richard Hoover. Costume designer Arianne Phillips. Art director Jeff Knip. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.