It’s rare these days to see a movie genuinely sparked by a pop song — most of the corporate rock that fills soundtracks comes off as so much high-energy sludge — but the opening credits of Benny & Joon are a welcome exception. Over pastoral images of Spokane, Wash., we hear the Scottish band the Proclaimers doing a number called ”I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” With its giddy, mock-martial beat and joyously spirited vocals, the song gives you a lift — it’s the aural equivalent of smart drinks.
The energy level comes down a notch the second the movie starts. Benny & Joon turns out to be a whimsical (and not very well paced) heart tugger in which two nice couples spend 98 ever-so-slightly flaky minutes figuring out that they’re perfect for each other. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik in the style of a mordantly capricious sitcom, the picture is coy, trifling, knowingly daft: a wisp of a movie about four wisps of characters. It is also, God help us, an example of the crazy-people-are-really-sane, love-makes-ordinary- people-crazy school of offbeat sentimentality, a genre I’d hoped had died out with Harold and Maude and King of Hearts. Still, as easy as it is to pick Benny & Joon apart, some of the festive mood of the Proclaimers’ music carries over to the rest of the film. For all its built-in preciousness, this is a friendly, happy comedy, with some likable performers. It won me over even when I didn’t believe a word of it.
One of the couples is ”normal”: Benny (Aidan Quinn), a chivalrous auto mechanic, and Ruthie (Julianne Moore), the waitress he woos without quite realizing he’s in love with her. The other two are half-cocked eccentrics: Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), Benny’s live-in sister, a schizophrenic who releases her tempestuous feelings in abstract-expressionist paintings, and Sam (Johnny Depp), a moonstruck hippie man-child who fancies himself the second coming of Buster Keaton.
Sam becomes Benny and Joon’s houseguest, and the film wastes no time turning its two nutball characters into bohemian huggy bears. Joon hears voices and, at one point, directs traffic with a Ping-Pong paddle, but most of the time she doesn’t seem mentally disturbed, just — you guessed it — misunderstood. And Sam, a mime-comedian-acrobat who rarely utters a word, is like a little boy doing parlor tricks for his parents’ guests. Depp is charming here, and he looks great in his flowing locks — he’s like a baby Christopher Walken — but why has he allowed himself to get stuck in Edward Scissorhands mode?
The movie is full of absurdist fripperies we’re meant to find magically funny; mostly they’re just cute (Sam cooking up grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron, a poker game in which a snorkel mask and baseball tickets are used as stakes). Beneath the domesticated surrealism, though, Benny & Joon becomes genuinely touching — a love story about separation anxiety. Benny, the saintly grease monkey, thinks he has to devote his life to Joon in order to keep her out of an institution. Can he give her the space she needs to fall in love (and then take said space for himself)? You already know the answer, but Quinn and Masterson — now gentle, now sniping — let it play out with tender conviction. Though hemmed in by the sentimental conception of her role, Masterson, in one or two scenes, comes close to making mental instability seem like a state of grace. And Quinn has the charisma of goodness: His bright, aw- shucks smile is as honest as Jimmy Stewart’s. Inconsequential as it is, Benny & Joon is that rare thing, a crazy-versus-sane movie that likes one kind as much as the other. B