Another 127 minutes of my life that I won’t get back.
Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie star in this 1999 film about a young woman who is admitted to a mental hospital after she has taken a bottle of aspirin washed down with vodka. Susanna (Ryder) claims that she was only trying to get rid of a headache, but her actions are interpreted as attempted suicide. Once inside Claymoore, Susanna begins to form relationships with other patients, many of whom seem to have far more serious mental health issues than her. Amongst these is Lisa (Jolie) who is rebellious and spirited, inspiring devotion from many of the women, including Susanna.
Jolie won a Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie, but I felt as if she was over-acting. I found it hard to empathise with either her character or Susanna’s, who seemed like a self-obsessed, indulged young woman rather than someone with serious mental health issues. ‘Girl, Interrupted‘ is the film adaptation of an autobiography; I suspect that in the written word, themes such as sanity and madness, institutionalisation, the treatment of depression etc. were explored more fully: in a film, it is very difficult to successfully convey what is going on inside someone’s head. A mental hospital is never going to be a cheery setting and my over-riding feeling throughout the film was one of unending dreariness.
According to internet reviews, the film received a mixed reception. I know what that means. It means quite a lot of people thought it was rubbish. Instead of the few weeks stay intended for Susanna, she ends up staying at the hospital for almost two years. I think the movie was filmed in real time, as I felt every minute of that two years. Seriously, just don’t bother.
Eugene Allen‘s wife, Helene, died the day before the US elections which saw Barack Obama claim his place at the first Arican American President. Eugene and his wife had been married for 65 years and had long been planning the day when they would vote together, for Obama. Eugene himself had enjoyed a long association with the White House, having worked there as a butler for 34 years and served eight presidents. His story was reported in an article entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” in The Washington Post in 2008. The piece inspired Danny Strong’s screenplay for ‘The Butler’, in which Eugene is represented by the fictional Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).
The film features a number of highly rated actors, drawn from both sides of the pond, from Oprah Winfrey to Robin Williams, Jane Fonda to Alan Rickman (they were my favourite Presidential couple, as Ronald and Nancy Reagan), Vanessa Redgrave to Lenny Kravitz. This varied cast is indicative of the wide scope of the film.
There is no doubt that this was a great idea for a movie, but for me the realisation somehow missed the mark. As it moves through the decades, the film attempts to chronicle the main events in the American human rights movement – mainly through the active involvement of the butler’s own son. This story is interleaved with those of the butler’s own family life and also the histories of the successive presidents. It is too tall an order, too much to cram in to one film in any meaningful way. As a result, I found the film just skimmed across the surface, never really getting to grips with the issues. It was like watching someone panning across a huge vista with a pair of binoculars, but never focussing in. No-one gives a bad performance, but no-one is especially memorable.
In my humble opinion, the film-makers could have taken some hints from Forrest Gump, whose run through modern history is far more engaging than that of The Butler.