I was hoping for more out of Girl, Interrupted, which is based on Susannah Kaysen's bone-thin memoir of having entered both womanhood and a mental institution back in the 1960s--and not just any mental institution, but the Boston area's McLean Hospital, which had housed such wild and woolly litterateurs as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. At once delicate and pungent, Kaysen's book may have the edge over Plath's The Bell Jar, if only because it was written from the relative calm of 25 years later. Even today, Kaysen isn't altogether sure whether she was "crazy" or just desperately unhappy during the nearly two years she spent at McLean, and it's this blurring of the boundaries--"borderline personality disorder" was the official diagnosis--that gives her readers a chill. If she needed help, maybe we need help. Somehow, director James Mangold has transformed Kaysen's memoir into yet another trip to The Snake Pit. Cliches abound: the rigid nurse, the not-so-rigid nurse (Whoopi Goldberg in one of her calmer moods), the patients who have to be taught how to rebel. It's not that Kaysen avoided these clichés but that she transmuted them into literary gold through the power of her personality. Winona Ryder, who's also the movie's executive producer, plays Susannah, and although she recently revealed that she once spent some time on a pysch ward, her performance seems too composed, too sane. It's left to Angelina Jolie, as the sociopathic Lisa, to take us on a tour of the psyche's tortured depths. Alas, the character--despite Jolie's jagged performance--is too indebted to Jack Nicholson's McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
In a reversal of Cuckoo's Nest, Susannah must stand up to Lisa--must defeat the Lisa in herself--before taking her rightful place in society. Nonconformity ain't what it used to be, I guess. Mangold told Premiere magazine he wanted to make "a movie about women that had some balls," but where, I wonder, are the balls? His direction is so safe it veers into Afterschool Special territory. Early on, he jiggles with the editing and the camera distance; characters are suddenly too close, then too far away, and you get some sense of how the world impinges on Susannah. But the movie never captures the free-floating, episodic quality of the book, the way life at McLean fades in and out of Susannah's--and our--consciousness. If Kaysen had one foot in and one foot out of insanity, Mangold has to settle for peering through the window.