"Girl, Interrupted"

If you think you see leaves tied to the trees in James Mangold's psychiatric-hospital drama, you're not going nuts.

By Jeff Stark

Published October 3, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

"Girl, Interrupted"
Directed by James Mangold
Starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, Vanessa Redgrave
Columbia Pictures; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Feature-length director's commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, making-of documentary, isolated music score, production notes

"Girl, Interrupted" is almost a good movie. Based on a memoir by Susanna Kaysen, it tells the coming-of-age story of a wealthy young teenager from a proper New England family who in the late 1960s checks herself into an exclusive psychiatric hospital for girls. Susanna, played by a flat Winona Ryder, is vaguely diagnosed a "borderline personality," seemingly because she's had an affair with a married man, chased a handful of aspirin with a bottle of vodka and ruined her parents' dinner party.

Inside the institution, Susanna meets a cast of lovable loonies who make friends and teach her how to palm her meds and navigate among the doctors, orderlies and various crazy patients. The nut house leader is Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a charismatic Kali who relishes her destructive power. She draws Susanna into her orbit almost immediately. The rest of the film is about the relationship between these two characters, and how Susanna finds her own sanity -- with the help of nurse Whoopi Goldberg and doctor Vanessa Redgrave -- by embracing and then renouncing Lisa's madness.

"I'm a fan of subtle," says director James Mangold in the DVD commentary, and by the time he makes the point, it's clear that he created a different movie in his head than the one that finally ended up on the screen. He allows Jolie -- a tense and exciting actress who won an Oscar for best supporting actress in this film -- to go one or two steps too far, one or two times too often. At first she's got that Jack Nicholson crazy brilliance, but eventually she's struck down and ends up shivering like she has the DTs under a mask of purple eye makeup.

The main problem with the film is that it looks like it started out as an ensemble picture and then ended up as a star vehicle for Ryder and Jolie. The brief sketches of the other girls who live in the institution scream for more attention: There's a pathological liar obsessed with the "Wizard of Oz," one who tried to burn her face off and another who is a (presumably) perfectly sane lesbian who has been shut away because she likes women.

But it's clear that Mangold, who made the wonderfully quiet film "Heavy" and the lunky Stallone vehicle "Cop Land," thinks this is Ryder's story, and his camera adores Jolie. Yet Ryder simply isn't much fun to watch, and her big realization toward the end of the film unfortunately invalidates a lot of the tedious flashback scenes. And Jolie, unfortunately, blots out a lot of the other characters.

The DVD extras feature cut scenes, including a nice, if heavy-handed sequence shot in the Reading Public Museum in Pennsylvania, and a peppy making-of documentary. Mangold's commentary is smart and satisfying, and he talks about how he tried to use "The Wizard of Oz" as a model to get away from traditional nut house dramas like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and how he had his production department tie leaves to trees in order to make the seasons change outside the grim institution. But in the end, his words are a lot like the film itself: an impressive if unrealized checklist of ambition.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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