Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 28 chapters, rated R, 127 min., $24.95, street date 6/6/2000.
Academy Awards: Won for Best Supporting Actress-Angelina Jolie, 2000.
Directed by James Mangold. Starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy, Elizabeth Moss, Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg.
Two time Oscar-nominee Winona Ryder stars in the fascinating true story of a young woman's life-altering stay at a famous psychiatric hospital in the turbulent late 1960s.
Questionably diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Susanna (Winona Ryder) rebels against head nurse (Whoopi Goldberg) and top psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave), choosing instead to befriend the resident "loonies" -- a group of troubled women including the seductively charismatic sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie).
But Susanna quickly learns that if she wants her freedom, she'll have to face the person who terrifies her most of all: herself.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't Winona Ryder played a sensitive young woman who wants to be a writer in every movie in which she's appeared? Okay, I guess she played a sensitive young android in Alien Resurrection, but I'll bet deleted footage shows that the robot composed poetry on the side!
I don't know why I requested the DVD of Girl, Interrupted, for it had many strikes against it before the disc arrived on my door. For one, everything about it screamed "chick flick!" and I think it's fair to say that very few films within that particular genre have appealed to me.
It didn't help that my most recent experience with that kind of movie also featured Ryder. 1995's Little Women hit DVD a couple of months ago, and to say that I disliked it would be an understatement. I absolutely detested the picture and didn't expect GI to be any better.
Surprisingly, however, I rather liked GI. While the movie seems inconsistent and not very sure of itself, I found it offered a compelling and intermittently provocative experience.
A period piece that takes place during the late Sixties, GI concerns itself with the flawed life of young Susanna (Ryder), a recent high school graduate who lacks focus, as they say. She seems pretty despondent and feels hopeless, which results in a semi-attempt to kill herself. These issues land her in a psychiatric hospital, where she goes for what she believes will be a short rest.
The remainder of the film depicts her "adventures" there and we soon meet a roster of colorful residents. These include an anorexic, a lesbian, and a few others, but most significantly, a sociopath, Lisa (Angelina Jolie). She's clearly the most interesting of the bunch, and her charisma soon works its magic on Susanna.
Despite the fact I'm starting to wonder if Ryder will ever stop playing high school girls - she's gotta be 80 by now - I found her performance to be unusually deft and rich for her. Ryder specializes in introspective, sensitive young women, and for the most part, Susanna fits the mold. However, the part requires Ryder to stretch quite a bit; not a scene passes without her presence, and Susanna runs the gamut of emotions. It's no surprise that Ryder pulls off the quiet, thoughtful passages, but I was frankly astounded to see how well she portrayed Susanna's more passionate and negative sides. One scene shows her as she really lashes out at the hospital's main nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg); Ryder's venom and bile seemed truly astounding and showed a side of her that I'd never previously witnessed. I hope this signals that she'll branch out more in the future.
Jolie's performance as Lisa has received the most attention simply because she won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her work here. While I think Jolie does a good job in the role, I don't believe she warranted that kind of award, especially because her portrayal seems pretty one-dimensional; very little of the part requires her to be anything other than caustic or harsh. However, I won't fault Jolie for the fact Lisa in underwritten; if anything, she wrings more personality and verve out of the role than it deserved.
Other aspects of GI worked well for me. For one, I liked the fact it offered a fairly realistic and accurate portrayal of mental illnesses. Yes, we had the usual cast of colorful crazies, but I felt they were treated more as real people than is typical, and their symptoms remained largely in the background. Also, unlike many other films, GI shows that no one can progress through their issues unless they themselves buy into it and work at it along with whatever professional help they may receive. Psychologists get an "all or nothing" treatment in movies; either they're miracle workers or they're complete frauds. GI walks a more realistic road and shows that good therapists can help the process but it remains up to the individual to do the heavy lifting.
As someone in the profession myself, I very much appreciated this viewpoint. In most films, the milieu in which GI takes place - a mental hospital - would be regarded as a torture chamber, and the inhabitants would be the innocent victims of the cruel tormentors. That doesn't happen here. The film starts along that path but broadens as it continues; clearly this occurs because the story is told from Susanna's viewpoint, and her more open-minded acceptance of the situation allows her to see the doctors and nurses more clearly. I don't expect - or want - all portrayals of mental health professionals to be completely glowing, but I do want them to be fair and accurate; in those regards, GI scores points.
What else did I like about GI? For one, director James Mangold avoids most of the period trappings of movies that take place in the Sixties. Oh, we're often reminded of the decade; sometimes this happens gently (through music), sometimes it's very forced (a film montage that relates to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King). However, I felt the film didn't shove the era down my throat. The decade in which the film occurred seemed largely irrelevant, so while Mangold reminds us of it, I didn't feel like GI was a period piece.
Mangold also avoids creating a stereotypical "chick flick". Based on the film's (terrible) trailers and my own assumptions, I expected GI to offer loads of mushy female bonding and "us against a world of terrible, oppressive men" sentiments. While we see a little of both in GI, they're very minor aspects of the film, especially the latter, to which the characters only vaguely allude (at best). The former is also much less sappy and prevalent than I expected; we get a few such scenes, but they aren't emphasized.
Honestly, I expected GI to present this band of messed-up women as some sort of band of proud rebels who are misunderstood by "the man" who's trying to fit these round pegs into square holes. I thought I'd find the same tired "I'm taking my own head, screwing it on right, and no guy's gonna tell me that it ain't" male-bashing of bitter trash like Fried Green Tomatoes. Happily, however, I didn't. GI stays away from most of those sentiments, and the film seems more satisfying because of that.
In addition to all of these areas, you want to know the main reason I liked GI? Because, in spite of itself, it works well as a bizarre form of horror film. We know that Lisa's a time bomb and that Susanna somehow will be victimized; the questions are when and how. I don't want to discuss the specifics, but many of the scenes seem to be staged as though they were going for maximum shock and terror, and it actually works. I found my heart pounding much more than it should have for this kind of material, but Mangold milks the tension for all it's worth in some scenes. I don't know if it was his intention to make parts of GI into thriller material, but that's how it worked for me.
Not all of Girl, Interrupted is terrific. In fact, there's almost nothing about it I'd call "great", and the end product seems erratic. My overall feelings about it are positive, but not as glowing as the preceding few paragraphs may lead you to believe. The movie changes moods too rapidly and tries to pack in too much information in a limited period. Because the focus remains so strongly on Susanna. many characters receive insufficient coverage; even Lisa gets little attention unless it involves Susanna. Since the film is based on autobiographical material, that doesn't seem surprising, but it would have made the movie better if the supporting roles could have been fleshed out better.
Nonetheless, I retain fairly positive feelings about Girl, Interrupted. It's not a great feel or even a particularly good one, but it does enough right to keep my involved and interested from start to finish. The movie presents its material in an even-handed manner and avoids most of the "chick flick" clichés. It also offers some very good acting, particularly from Winona Ryder in a surprisingly varied and occasionally tough performance. Man, I never thought I'd do this, but I have to recommend Girl, Interrupted.
Girl, Interrupted appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For those who love acronyms, we'll call this one "ATTFCTS": Another terrific transfer from Columbia-Tristar.
Sharpness appears wonderfully crisp and well-defined throughout the movie; if any scenes betray any softness, I must have blacked out during them, for I detected nothing other than clear and vivid images. Moiré effects and jagged edges appear once or twice apiece, but are not problems, and I noticed fewer artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV than usual. The print itself seemed clean; I witnessed no examples of speckles, scratches, grain, nicks or hairs.
Colors remained subdued through much of the film - mental hospitals don't offer a lot of rosy hues - but what we see appears accurate and pleasing; the few instances when brighter tones emerge seem vivid and bright. Black levels looked deep and rich, and shadow detail provided strong definition. All in all, this film provides an absolutely fantastic image.
Surprisingly strong is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of GI. This isn't exactly the kind of film that lends itself to a killer mix, so I was pleased to discover how good it actually sounds. The soundfield itself is naturally broad. It stays pretty quiet for the most part and generally sticks to soft ambience, but audio seems accurately and appropriately placed throughout the mix; everything appears properly localized and the track conveys a nice sense of spatiality. Some times the audio cranks up a notch, such as during a party scene in which loud music plays. At those times, the mix replicates the situations well and creates a convincing atmosphere.
Also strong is the quality of the sound. Dialogue always appears warm and natural, and I found no problems with intelligibility. Effects are crisp and clean, and the music seems clear and rich, with some decent bass as well. The soundtrack of Girl, Interrupted doesn't blast hard enough to warrant a full "A", but the strong soundfield and the excellent quality merit a solid "A-".
GI is presented as a "collector's edition", and it offers some good supplements. First up is an erratic audio commentary from director James Mangold. On the positive side, Mangold gives us a lot of good background information about the project and also clues us in to his inspirations and references; he spends quite a lot of time discussing how GI matches up with The Wizard of Oz. (I wonder what happens if you play "Dark Side of the Moon" while you watch GI?) However, Mangold can go for long stretches without saying much, and he tends to devote too many of his comments to praise for the cast. Yeah, it's smart to say how great they were, but some commentaries go overboard in that regard, and this is one of them. Mangold's track presents enough useless data to merit a listen, but I found the experience to be mildly frustrating.
Another additional feature isolates the film's score on an alternate channel. I'm not a fan of movie music, really, but I still am always pleased to discover these, since many people do enjoy film scores. One neat note: this track includes all of the movie's music, whether it's Mychael Danna's original music or the many pop songs from the era or even the I Dream of Jeannie theme!
Next is "HBO First Look: The Making of Girl, Interrupted, a 13 and a half minute puff piece that promotes the film. It includes some decent interview snippets but nothing I didn't hear elsewhere, whether through Mangold's commentary or the production notes. As with the trailer, this program still gives viewers the wrong impression of film, and I also think it reveals too much of the story. I like the fact it includes some comments from the real Susanna Kaysen, but other than that, the documentary does not offer a whole lot to compel viewers.
More interesting are the five deleted scenes we discover. These last about 17 minutes and 15 seconds total and can be viewed with or without commentary from Mangold. Although I don't think any of the clips belonged in the finished film - most either were redundant or gave away aspects of the story that were best hidden for later in the movie - I found the scenes to be uniformly interesting. Much of the time, deleted scenes are dull and almost useless, but that wasn't the case here; none of these are "throwaways". Mangold's commentary doesn't cover a whole lot of ground - there's much more dead space than remarks here - but he at least addresses the reasons why he left out the scenes, so that aspect of the program is a success.
Finally, the DVD wraps up with some of the old standbys. We get trailers for GI, plus Ryder vehicles Dracula and Little Women and Jolie's Foxfire. The standard absurdly brief and almost useless "Talent Files" we see on most CTS DVDs give us sketchy biographies of Mangold, Ryder, Jolie, Goldberg, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jared Leto, and the DVD's booklet contributes some decent production notes. All in all, this is a nice package; lose the "HBO First Look" and include a real documentary and this sucker would edge into "A" territory for its supplements. As it stands, it'll have to live with its "B+".
I see a lot of movies and they don't often surprise me. Sometimes I'll find an Autumn Sonata or an American Movie, films that seemed marginally interesting but ended up being much more compelling than I anticipated. However, it's exceedingly rare that I watch a film I expected to absolutely loathe and enjoy it. Girl, Interrupted is one of the few to enter that latter category; it might be the first since Good Will Hunting about 15 months ago.
Girl, Interrupted isn't as good a film as that one, but I found it rather compelling nonetheless. The movie's case isn't hurt by this DVD, which offers terrific picture and sound and some strong supplements as well. I don't know if the film merits a purchase, but I think it's worth at least a rental.
Current as of 6/4/2000
Official Site--Includes production notes, multimedia, and trailer.
Reviews Archive: #, A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z
Previous: Marnie | Back to Main Page