Benny & Joon

BENNY & JOON announces its fable domain over the opening credits with the anthem-like exuberance of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Scottish duo The Proclaimers. As the cast names roll by, the sense that we’re pulling into Offbeat Territory becomes clear, nudged by the season-tinged setting in Spokane, Washington, letting us know that at least the quirk array will be poised somewhere other than New York City, L.A. or the fall-back-on-accents region ‘down South’. Thanks to the cast, what could have been another cute-meets-mushy vehicle succeeds in producing good will and smiles instead of headache and heartburn.

Having a Boo Radley moment, are we?”

Long-orphaned after a parental car wreck, auto mechanic ‘Benny Pearl’ (Aidan Quinn) and his artist sister ‘Juniper’/’Joon’ (Mary Stuart Masterson) live together but swell fella Benny is fit to quit trying to keep the mentally impaired Joon and her emotional impulses from disaster. Arriving on the scene like a farceur Shane, similarly off-kilter ‘Sam’ (Johnny Depp) takes temporary duty as houseguest and playmate/watchdog for volatile Joon. He’s a gentle, footloose illiterate who acts out his worldview by aping silent era comedians like Buster Keaton. He and Joon bond; will that free Benny to make a freedom break and strike sparks with diner worker ‘Ruthie’ (Julianne Moore)?

The script by Barry Berman tends to the predictable and synthetic, and every character is “colorful” (note other indie faves in the cast list below) but director Jeremiah S. Chechik mostly refrains from tilting into syrup (Depp’s costuming pushes the twee factor some), and his gifted actors lock it down. Quinn’s blend of affable and guarded makes Sam a guy to root for. Moore gives her slightly sketched ‘catch’ a quiet radiance; her quick scene ‘telling off’ Benny is a gem of understated rejection. Depp uses his elastic physical skills to effect; Sam’s dogged decency a bookend to Depp’s same year work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? where he had the Quinn role taking care of an afflicted sibling. The toughest job with the finest line to walk goes to Masterson who acutely mirrors the see-saw of alertness and anxiety that bless and curse the inner-isolated Joon. A neat touch is that the vivid paintings Joon designs were created by the actress.

Capra-cast with Oliver Platt, CCH Pounder, Dan Hedaya, Joe Grifasi, William H. Macy and Eileen Ryan. Decent reviews applauded the genial players handling of the iffy material (real life dilemmas through a wish-fulfillment filter) and it became a sleeper success back in 1993, grossing $23,700,000 domestically, $7,000,000 elsewhere.

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