I guess you could call it a romantic comedy. Benny & Joon, the 1993 film about a couple of societal misfits who fall in love, has been turned into a musical, because that’s what inevitably happens to movies now. But the core of Barry Berman and Lesley McNeil’s screenplay is not really romantic or, for the most part, comedic. Or musical.
One of its title characters is mentally ill, the other is her brother/caretaker. In the film, Joon’s illness is drawn with the lack of nuance endemic to the early ‘90s: we know she’s “different” because she is prone to donning a scuba mask out of water and she puts her cereal in the blender. Mary Stuart Masterson plays her with a childlike impishness that removes her physical body from her mental maturity. Her illness is not defined, or treated with anything like sympathy.
That’s because the film is about Benny. Played by Aidan Quinn with a watery-eyed working man quality, the camera sticks to Benny and pays attention to his wants and his struggles even as it glides past Joon’s. We’re meant to see Benny as long-suffering, to identify his care of Joon as a sacrifice that has tanked any chance of his having a personal life. That is, until he realizes he can pass Joon off to another man.
Benny and Joon acquire Sam, played by Johnny Depp, in a game of poker. I’m going to leave it at that, because it’s an absurd plot device and trying to explain it only lends it more credence. Sam wears Buster Keaton drag and, like Joon, lives outside social norms. He uses an iron as a panini press! He disassembles a car and turns it into a musical instrument! A distinction is made between Joon’s illness and Sam’s eccentricity: Joon is sick, Sam just has a big imagination.
Benny & Joon is notable mainly for a sequence where Johnny Depp does some physical comedy reminiscent of silent films. Otherwise, what’s there to say about it? Sam and Joon eventually fall in love, because of course, and once Joon is successfully paired off, Benny can open himself to love from a former-actress-turned-diner-waitress played by Julianne Moore. Good for him. The last third crams in a plan to run away, a panic attack, a trip to a mental hospital, and a grand gesture from Sam that involves some Harold Lloyd-esque facade swinging. It’s a lot of plot for what has been a gentle character study up to that point.
So, it’s kind of head-scratching to see all of that musicalized. The book by Kirsten Guenther makes some substantial improvements that mostly involve fleshing out the characters of Joon and Sam. Guenther gives Joon’s illness a name – schizophrenia – and she expands what is only a brief flashback in the film, the moment when Benny and Joon became orphans. Guenther roots Joon’s mental decline in the death of their parents and links her behaviors to that moment in her past. She also explains Sam’s cinephilia: his parents were abusive and they had a volatile relationship, so he escapes into the brighter world of celluloid as a coping mechanism. Sam chooses to live in an alternate reality to get away from the harshness of the real one.
It’s nothing revelatory or original, but it gives both Joon and Sam more of a foundation. It also gives them a connection beyond “they’re both weird!”, which seems to be the only thing the film cares about. The blanks Guenther fills in give Joon and Sam the common ground of their parental traumas and the ways they are both dealing with that as adults. The musical makes it possible to see how they could care for each other in their new life together.
The score faces an uphill battle, because nothing about the film is asking to be sung. For one thing, Sam barely speaks, so singing is a stretch. The most successful device composer Nolan Gasser employs is to give Sam wordless “ballets” in place of solo songs. His arias are delivered the way Sam expresses himself – physically, not verbally. He does sing, particularly in the song that explains his retreat into the movie world, “In My Head”, but these moments require a lot of will power for Sam to bring them out.
It’s not that Sam’s musical interludes are anything remarkable, though. Like the rest of the score, they are pleasant, passing tunes that barely register while they’re happening and then immediately disappear at completion. That’s not entirely Gasser’s fault. It’s difficult to think of anywhere in the film that a song should, or even could, be placed. The film hinges on bottled-up frustrations, on a lack of communication, on people who are so worn down by the difficulty of their lives that the last thing they want to do is belt. Benny’s defining quality is that he’s tired. Where’s he going to get lung power?
Gasser and lyricist Mindi Dickstein give Sam and Joon a diner duet where they start a mission to “save the raisins.” Joon explains that raisins, “used to be fat and juicy, and now they’re twisted and sad. They had their souls stolen.” The song that follows is about how grapes are depleted into something nobody wants anymore. It’s an apt metaphor for how Sam and Joon interact with everyone else in town, but the song bubbles around the pair’s innocuous game without drawing the line between the raisins and their own disenfranchisement. We don’t see Sam and Joon acknowledge that they are raisins and we don’t see them decide to become grapes again.
With Guenther’s attention to Joon and Sam’s development, the musical re-centers the story. It’s more Sam & Joon than Benny & Joon. Benny is still there, he still does all his sighing and still has trouble opening himself to Ruthie, the diner waitress, but without the camera tagging along on his shoulder, he becomes less of the focus. That’s to the musical’s benefit, because Benny is the least interesting character of the principal trio. The watery eyes here are Claybourne Elder’s pools of blue, but Elder isn’t believable as a mechanic. Despite his tall, muscular frame, he’s still too soft, too pliable. He’s more like the English teacher you have a crush on than the guy who’s gonna change your carburetor.
Bryce Pinkham is able to make Sam entirely internal, but also available to the audience. Pinkham’s physical performance captures the spirit of silent cinema beautifully and his face and voice twist into relics of the period with agility. This role, in particular, attracts the trap of Depp’s performance, but Pinkham brings a gracefulness to Sam that Depp did not. Pinkham’s Sam is also obsessed with Buster Keaton, but the way it manifests in his body is completely different. This is a testament to Pinkham’s talent, to the intelligence he brings to the role, and to his commitment to making Sam a full human being. Where Depp plays only the comedy, Pinkham’s Sam clearly carries great pain and works hard to move through it.
Hannah Elless brings a straightforwardness to Joon that skirts the childish qualities of Masterson’s performance and works to justify Joon’s behavior. Elless’ Joon knows what she’s doing and it’s intentional. Her Joon is less “wacky” and more realistic. She’s a grown woman who is constantly told to stop and behave and needs a babysitter to keep watch over her while her brother’s at work. Elless paints Joon as wanting the same things as Benny: connection with another human being, understanding, and love. She gets these things in Sam. Benny loves her, yes, but he’ll always be an authority figure. With Sam, she finds an equal.
Credit also must be given to director Jack Cummings III. With his company, Transport Group, Cummings makes theatre that focuses on the characters, on turning them into living, breathing people, and he is often successful. He brings these talents to Benny & Joon, stripping away all the zaniness of the film, and telling the story of these three people without frills. Dane Laffrey’s set is an overhead map of Benny and Joon’s town and sliding furniture that comes out in front of it. Locations are distinguished with pinpoints of light, by R. Lee Kennedy, that pop up on the map like a “You Are Here” arrow. Clouds extend everywhere else, above and around. It’s a lyrical approach that finds beauty in the narrative and keeps the eye on the characters and their place in the world.
Improvements aside, the problem remains that the source material is resistant to musicalization. Rachel Portman’s score for the film, though skilled, emphasizes the cutesy treatment of Joon’s illness and Sam’s wackadoo pantomime. Grounding her schizophrenia and his anxiety in causality like the musical does also leaves the feel of the music in a stylistic limbo. What do the inner lives of these characters sound like? An easy question to answer for Sam – not so much for Benny and Joon. Gasser and Dickstein haven’t nailed it down enough to create a compelling score for Guenther’s book, but I would argue that it’s a nearly impossible task. Maybe it would have been better as a play. Or maybe it should have just stayed a movie.