Toronto
2 min

Girl!?

Nice cuckoo's nest hairdo

CRAZY CHIC. Girl, Interupted's Winona Ryder (star and executive producer) is maddeningly pixie-ish. Credit: Xtra files

If I ever have the misfortune of being institutionalized by my parents, I pray that, at least, I get dragged screaming in the fabulous Jean Seberg-inspired wardrobe worn by Winona Ryder in the big mess of a film Girl, Interrupted.



As a depressed but brilliant patient at an upscale mental hospital in the late 1960s, Ryder – who’s no stranger to eccentric, moody girl roles – is so lovely and pixie-ish that she makes the whole experience appealingly chic.



Driven by a combination of a failed affair with a married man, her graduation from high school, headaches and hallucinations, she chases a bottle of Aspirin with a bottle of vodka and is committed by her wealthy, appearance-obsessed parents. At the hospital she befriends other troubled young women, including the charismatic sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie), and struggles to heal herself in order to be discharged.



Girl, Interrupted is based on Susanna Kaysen’s best-selling memoir of the same name (with Ryder as Kaysen), and it’s a difficult book to bring to the screen. Without much in the way of plot, Kaysen recounts with dark humour her two year stay at a mental institution and the comings and goings of her sad and difficult fellow patients: anorexics, compulsive liars, self-mutilators and attempted suicides.



In the hands of writer/director James Mangold (Heavy, Cop Land), Girl, Interrupted is never sure whether it’s a feel-good chick flick, or an all-female production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Presided over by head nurse Valerie (a sage, sexless caregiver played to wise-cracking irritation by centre square Whoopi Goldberg), one minute the girls are swapping nail polish and sneaking around for late night parties, the next they’re hoarding Valium and being carted off for electro-shock therapy.



Burdened with stilted dialogue and clunky allusions to The Wizard Of Oz (a girl, trapped in a strange world, labours to find her way home), the film rarely rises above the tired cliché – that it’s the so-called crazies who are the most sober and honest among us. Or, as the movie poster puts it: “Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to go a little crazy.”



Which doesn’t really explain the very tragic and disturbing characters in the cast – a daddy’s girl with a horrible secret and a developmentally arrested young woman disfigured by a fire she set herself as a child – and why Mangold plays them for laughs, schmaltz or plot turns.



Stars Ryder and Jolie, with their chapped lips and gnawed-off cuticles, are both so method-y it hurts. The fierce, sexy Jolie is terrific playing Lisa’s split second turns at cruelty and sweetness. And at the film’s few subtle and effective moments, Ryder and Jolie get past the crazy girl antics to reveal the pain of their predicament: While both Susanna and Lisa want desperately to leave, the institution is the only place where they have found friends and safety.



Instead of honestly examining these messy, tragic characters, or better yet, just letting them be, Mangold wants everything tied up nicely. When a tragedy compels Susanna to find her way out of the hospital, the scene is told through a cheesy montage of wellness activities: writing in her journal, laying on a couch talking to her shrink, helping the other patients.



In the end, Girl, Interrupted makes it look like Susanna’s gone to a spa to shape up, rather than a mental hospital to cure her suicidal longings.



Girl, Interupted opens Tue, Dec 21 at selected theatres.