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Benny and Joon

First Woody Harrelson bailed out of the role of Benny, the mechanic who overprotects his schizophrenic sister, Joon. Then Laura Dern decided not to play Joon. Wise career moves. Our condolences to Johnny Depp — he’s trapped in this pot of curdled whimsy as Sam, a free-spirited dyslexic with a Buster Keaton fixation who falls for Joon, now played by Mary Stuart Masterson, and tangles with Benny, now played by Aidan Quinn. Depp is an adventurous actor. (One anticipates Ed Wood, which will team him with his Edward Scissorhands mentor, Tim Burton, in the story of the cross-dressing director of such turkeys as “Glen or Glenda?” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”) But the cast is defeated by a cloying Barry Berman script that Jeremiah Chechik directs with the same flair for the obvious he brought to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Sam sweetly introduces Joon to sex. In deference to a presumed audience of swooning ten-year-olds, there’s no heated thrashing about. But Benny goes gonzo and separates the lovers. Joon breaks down. Tears flow. It’s difficult to pick the moment that most sets the nerves on edge. For my money it’s any scene in which Depp pushes his mime act for pathos. In suspenders, hat and baggy pants, Depp does Keaton with a vengeance. His affection for the silent screen clown is clear, but the movie trades in a sentimentality the Great Stoneface couldn’t abide. At one point, Sam swings from a rope outside Joon’s hospital window, flashing the pathetic look of a lost soul in love. The message seems to be that two unbalanced people make a perfect match. Whatever qualms you might have about romanticizing mental illness, the misguided Benny and Joon thinks it’s just darling.

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