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[whitespace] Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie
Borderline Cases: Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie confront the '60s by going haywire.

Therapy Chic

Why spend time in a mental hospital if you're not crazy?

By Richard von Busack

SUSAN KAYSEN'S memoir, Girl, Interrupted, is an evasive book about going haywire. It expertly skirts the central question: "Why spend two years in a mental hospital if you're not really insane?" If this omission wasn't such a delicate feat of engineering, you'd call it coy.

Following a half-hearted suicide attempt, 18-year-old "Susanna" Kaysen (Winona Ryder) commits herself to a private mental hospital. Three writers are credited with trying to defrost Kaysen's book, trying to give the narrator a reason for staying in the hospital when she couldn't even explain it to herself. In the film, Susanna puts it into words: "Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe the outside was crazy." The outside is crazy, definitely. Director James Mangold ropes in 1968, prodding us into memories of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with references to the Vietnam war and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The scenes of women waiting around and smoking cigs in the TV lounge--is it supposed to be a sit-in?--are accompanied by vintage music, mostly by the Jefferson Airplane.

The film does cook up a case of incest to explain why the anorexic girl Daisy (Brittany Murphy) has starved herself. Susanna's own problems are challenged by Whoopi Goldberg, playing a Life Force again. Goldberg confronts Susanna, as she never was confronted in her own memoir.

To keep us rooting for Ryder's pallid heroine Mangold gives us a genuinely crazy girl, the sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie), who has shown flashes of promise in earlier movies. Whatever is eating Jolie, however, she's too sharp-toothed to allow her to play a normal female lead in a movie. She's almost unwatchable--bleached and ghostly, all big nasty grin and rolling eyes: Billy Zane with boobs.

The book is a sort-of protest against the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which supposedly kept Kaysen in the hospital. The movie instead comes out in favor of therapy, with Susanna getting some good out of her extended stay once she learns to write in her diary. Girl, Interrupted is a romance about abandonment, isolation--a film about a sleeping beauty who bewitched herself.

Girl, Interrupted (R; 127 min.), directed by James Mangold, written by Mangold, Susan Kaysen, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the book by Kaysen, photographed by Jack N. Green and starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and Whoopi Goldberg, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the January 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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