You know that time of life — in high school or maybe in college — when being crazy is considered very romantic? When there’s always a girl in the class who’s intensely beautiful and intensely bats, and even though she’s deeply, self-destructively nuts, boys love her and other girls want to be her because she acts so wild and fetchingly fragile? In Mad Love, gamine, wifty Drew Barrymore plays Casey, the crazy new girl in town, and handsome, clear-eyed Chris O’Donnell (soon to be seen as the Cowled One’s sidekick in Batman Forever) plays Matt, the bright, responsible high school student who falls in love with her. I should say right out that I liked this movie for what it is — something slight and romanticized, but with an expectedly good and unforced performance by O’Donnell and an unexpectedly good and modulated performance by Barrymore (far more mature and interesting than her work in Boys on the Side, plus — a breakthrough — for once she doesn’t flash her breasts!). I should also acknowledge that if you’re not in the mood for the volcanic passions of teenagers, and for the guidance-counselorish indulgence with which director Antonia Bird (who made Priest so beautifully) approaches Paula Milne’s screenplay, then you may be in the eye-rolling camp on this one.
When we first meet Matt, he’s sending his twin 9-year-old brother and sister off to school with the kind of casual competence you expect from the older brothers on TV’s Party of Five. Mom, you see, ditched the family years ago, Dad is swamped with work, and it falls to Matt to be a substitute parent while at the same time being a regular teenage guy. Casey, then, is a refreshing novelty. She’s a rebel, a suicidal manic-depressive — the sort of free spirit who, to get to speak to Matt while he’s in class, pulls the fire alarm to empty out the school. No wonder he falls for her! She’s much more fun, much sexier, and much more thrilling to be with than his kid siblings, and he gets to play the parent role he knows so well.
That Mad Love is set in Seattle does the story no particular good. All movies about young, flannel-shirted people in that hip, caffeinated city look pretty passé after Singles. But once the two hit the road in a doomed attempt to outrun Casey’s demons (her parents, the fuddy-duddies, are trying to put her in a mental institution, and she doesn’t want to go), Bird captures some tender moments of real despair, including a powerful scene in which Casey begins to unravel at a restaurant — a beautifully constructed collage of precise camera shots and sophisticated acting on Barrymore’s part.
The climax of Mad Love is madly histrionic, and there are moments when Barrymore’s mascara, smudged from tears, makes her look unfortunately clownish as she sobs her way to mental health. But I say this to anyone with eye-rolling tendencies toward this enjoyably soppy story: Haven’t you ever wanted to pull the school fire alarm yourself? B