I wanted to write this review of Jeremiah Chechik’s Benny & Joon even before I saw the film. I’d heard from someone that actor Johnny Depp had modelled his character on Buster Keaton. That’s the highest recommendation I know. The Silent Era of films in America produced three great comic actors: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. While Chaplin’s work has been given the wide exposure it deserves, history has shortchanged both Lloyd and Keaton. If Benny & Joon sends people out looking for their films, it gets a great big critical hug from me.
More about Buster Keaton later. As it turned out, Benny & Joon has a lot more going for it than its choice of role models. It’s a quirky, gentle love story where people make toasted cheese sandwiches on an ironing board (wool setting or permanent press?), make one another’s lives miserable with the best of intentions, play poker for lava lamps & slightly-used Soap-On-A-Rope, and philosophize about raisins:
Sam: Why don’t you like raisins?
Joon: They used to be fat & juicy. They had their lives stolen. Now they’re twisted. They taste sweet, but they’re just humiliated grapes.
We all need conversations like this.
The basic plot of Benny &. Joon is simple enough. Benjamin (Aidan Quinn) works in a garage and takes care of his sister, Juniper Pearl (Mary Stuart Masterson), who has been mentally unstable since their parents’ death in an automobile accident 12 years previously. Joon’s an obviously talented young woman (“She paints. She reads. She lights things on fire.”) who’s chosen to inhabit a world other than the so-called “real” one which traumatized her. She pours most of her psychic energy into some pretty visceral artwork. What’s left is channeled through the kitchen blender, where she concocts dubiously edible snacks of cornflakes, milk, tapioca, peanut butter, and whatever else comes to hand.
Benny & Joon’s problem is that the barriers Joon has thrown up to protect herself are fragile ones. Things come crashing through. Joon takes medication to help her maintain an equilibrium just the other side of sanity, but the medication is a far-from-foolproof shield against her personal demons. Housekeepers are hired on a revolving door basis. A few crises, and they’re looking, elsewhere. When Benny runs out of potential housekeepers, the family’s psychiatrist suggests a Group Home as the only viable answer to Joon’s instability. Her brother naturally resists, but it seems a losing battle. After a simple ping pong game with Joon ends in shockingly unexpected violence, Benny says in despair, “I can’t even keep a goldfish alive—what chance do I have with Joon?”
Enter Johnny Depp and the ghost of Buster Keaton. Depp plays Sam, a 26-year-old, illiterate drifter with a consuming passion for old movies. When we first glimpse him through a train window, he’s got his nose in a book called The Look of Buster Keaton. The next time we see him, he’s sitting in a tree. In both these scenes, and throughout the film, he wears the Look. It’s not exactly the great stone-faced I-Almost-Understand-This-All-But-Not-Quite Look that was one of Buster Keaton’s greatest creations, yet it’s a fine tribute to the master. Johnny Depp also recreates some of Keaton’s and Chaplin’s best pieces of physical comedy. If there’s a clear difference between Sam and the character played by Keaton in his silents, it’s that Sam uses his skill to make the outside world a friendlier place to live. Keaton, on the other hand, made people laugh because his athleticism and grace helped him triumph, effortlessly, over an unceasingly hostile universe. One best remembers Sam winning a smile from a harried waitress by quoting, line by line, from some obscure B-movie she’d made as a teenager. One best remembers Keaton running down a grassy hill, miraculously dodging a landslide of enormous papier mâché boulders, or riding a motorcycle backwards over a collapsing bridge. As Paul Gallico wrote of Keaton: “This was my dead-pan boy, hero of a hundred movies, Frustration’s mime, pursued, put-upon, persecuted by humans as well as objects suddenly possessed of a malevolent life and will of their own.”
Sam, far from being persecuted by objects, is a magician who transforms them into the objects of his desire. A car becomes a musical instrument, a hat learns more tricks than a circus dog, a tennis racquet turns out to have real potential as a potato masher.
Of course Joon & Sam fall in love. Of course Benny is going a to have a problem with this. Who wouldn’t? He’s been protecting his sister for 12 years. Sam’s a wonderful mime, but his eloquence doesn’t extend to the spoken word:
“Joon and I are….uh…..y’know….” Of course Benny throws him out of the house.
Their lives all get a little more complicated at this point. Nowhere near as complicated as dealing with mental illness or illiteracy in real life, however. Nor as complicated as Buster Keaton’s own life & career. This first time I ever saw him in a movie was not in one of his great silent films of the 20s; it was in Beach Blanket Bingo and How To Stuff A Wild Bikini—those hugely popular Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello flicks of the mid-60s. Now there’s a fall from grace worthy of Shakespeare. Imagine Will spending his last years writing Harlequin romances. Keaton’s own mental breakdown was far cruder, deadlier than Joon’s. To compound the irony, the same year Keaton became the butt of bad surfer jokes he’d made a fine movie (Railrodder) for the National Film Board of Canada, and entered the Twilight Zone in a short one-man film—simply called Film—written by none other than Samuel Beckett in one of his blackest, spookiest moods. It’d probably take a logic as unique as Joon’s to make sense of a destiny like that.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Gosh, they look young! That was my first thought when watching Benny & Joon in 2017. This talented cast was in the full flush of youth in 1993, a long ways away from the middle-aged actors we now see in Elementary, NCIS, or Pirates of the Caribbean. The only actor who seems remarkably unchanged is William H. Macy—I think he was born mature. Johnny Depp was 30 when he made Benny & Joon, and doesn’t look a day over twenty. He gives a master class in physical comedy with an empathic rather than a manic edge. Mary Stuart Masterson matches him in her fragility, volatility, humour, and tentative embrace of love, independence, and joy. Aidan Quinn’s Benny is salt-of-the-earth working class; he’ll always have your back.
John Schwartzman’s cinematography is lovely, capturing the close-knit, small city feeling that’s needed for this quirky, intimate story. I was reminded of Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987). Benny & Joon was shot on location in Spokane, Washington; it’s one of my favorite American cities because of the way it’s held onto architectural remnants of its past. All those wonderful old red brick buildings and turn-of-the-century houses. As soon as I saw that giant milk bottle in the background of the one of the shots, I knew where I was. And with its gorgeous art deco Fox Theatre and classic Bing Crosby Theatre, Spokane’s an ideal place for Johnny Depp to call up the ghosts of the great silent film comedians.
The best work of those comedians—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd—has aged beautifully. All three artists took the silent film as far towards perfection as it could go. If watching Benny & Joon gets some viewers to check out the original films that inspired Depp’s performance, it will have done a great service. The film’s comedy routines are just teasers for silent film’s endlessly inventive comic wonderland.
There’s an important theme in Jeremiah Chechik’s film that I’ve seen play out as the years go by: Martyrdom isn’t the best form of altruism. Helping others is a noble cause, but if it becomes an excuse for not living one’s own life to the fullest, that self-sacrifice can take on a bitter, resentful edge. It’s amazing how much damage can be done by well-intentioned but unhappy people. When Joon tells her brother, “You need me to be sick,” she’s got him dead to rights. Taking care of his sister is no walk in the park, but Benny’s real burden is his lack of insight into his own needs. Sam’s arrival eventually blasts open the doors of the unconscious prison Benny and Joon have made of their life together.
Another key theme is independence. How much freedom can someone with a severe psychological disorder handle? Nowadays, the answer is: a lot more than in the days when patients were routinely electroshocked, lobotomized, drugged, and incarcerated. But there’s always the risk that providing more freedom also opens up more opportunities for self-harm, for exploitation, or for harm of others. There’s no risk-free or one-size-fits-all solution. Although mental institutions and group homes have been much maligned, for some individuals they offer the structure and social interactions that family or independent living can’t provide. Joon is blessed in having two people in her life who can offer her the support she needs to try to live life on her own terms.
Sam is just enough of a creation of his own imagination (via Keaton, Chaplin, Langdon) to slip naturally into Joon’s world. What could be worthier of Keaton than the sight of Sam ironing grilled cheese sandwiches, wondering which setting (wool? Rayon?) is optimal for the task at hand? In turn, Sam can accept the logic of Joon’s insistence on not eating raisins because they are humiliated grapes, grapes that have had their lives stolen. Even Benny has his touch of the absurd with his poker games where the stakes are snorkels, tickets baseball games, lava lamps, record albums, shampooing the dog, and an unwanted cousin.
The film’s soundtrack is a little unusual. The composer was Rachel Portman, whose impressive resume includes almost a hundred films and TV shows. Along with Ms. Portman’s fine score, echoing the style of the musical accompaniments of the silents, the soundtrack relies heavily on three perfectly-chosen songs: The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and Joe Cocker’s version of Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” These songs aren’t slipped into the background; they’re right up front. They ground the entire film.