Generally when deciding whether to watch a movie, I check Rotten Tomatoes and possibly IMDB to help me decide if it’s one worth seeing and writing about. If it sounds even minimally promising and has, say better than 80% positives on Rotten Tomatoes, I generally add it. If it sounds moderately promising and has about 55% or more positives, I tend to include it. Below that, it better sound really promising. (There are also a few films that have few or even zero reviews at Rotten Tomatoes where I’m really flying blind and just have to use my best judgment.)
I made an exception for Prozac Nation. The topic sounded somewhat promising, and I like Christina Ricci OK (though I maintain she was hotter when she was more unconventional looking), but normally that would mean I’d still want at least 50% and probably more like 60% on Rotten Tomatoes for it to make the cut. But I went with my gut on this one and decided to give it a shot in spite of it scoring a mere 26% positive (which is the lowest I remember of any movie I’ve decided in favor of seeing).
In looking through several of the reviews (and the negative reviews tended not to be mixed or just barely negative, but really panned the movie), I noted that the theme of most of the criticisms was that the protagonist was a totally unlikable character, a bitchy, unpleasant, spoiled brat, just an asshole who didn’t warrant having a movie made about her.
Which is interesting, since by that logic it would be impossible to ever make a worthwhile movie about Charles Manson, Glenn Beck, or Ivan the Terrible.
Plus, the movie—which comes from a nonfiction autobiographical book—is about someone with severe depression, and you’d think critics would be a lot more accepting of a person with a serious mental illness being depicted as a pain in the ass.
Having now seen the film, I have several points to make related to this.
One is that maybe because I was all set for her to be this awful, unpleasant, irredeemable character, I found her to be less extreme than I anticipated. Definitely a flawed person and one I would likely want nothing to do with in real life, but not as totally unsympathetic and horrible as the reviews I’d read had led me to expect.
Also, as I felt going in, her being likable, unlikable or something in between was not the determining factor in whether I liked the movie itself or thought it was a good movie. It is indeed entirely possible to make a good (or bad) movie about Hitler, just as one could make a good (or bad) movie about Gandhi.
Further, I actually didn’t find her to be the most unpleasant person in the movie. For me, that would be her mother, a self-centered shrew obsessed with her daughter achieving conventional success that she could brag about and experience vicariously.
Anyway, the story is that the protagonist, the product of a broken home, with an absent father that she has little contact with and the aforementioned icky mother, arrives at Harvard as a freshman, achieves some early success as a writer—not just in school but on a national level, writing for Rolling Stone for instance—throws herself into drinking, smoking, drugs, and sex, gets some friends and boyfriends and interacts with them in emotionally immature and unkind ways, continues to clash with her family, contemplates or attempts suicide (actually that started even before Harvard), spends some time in therapy and briefly in some kind of mental health facility, and generally just behaves irresponsibly.
I had the sense watching this that I was seeing a four hour movie that had had random scenes deleted to make it an hour and a half. It felt like it was assuming certain things had already been established that in fact hadn’t.
Like when a boyfriend breaks up with her after a certain incident, he attributes it to his wanting to enjoy himself and party more (the “we never have any fun anymore” lament of a stale relationship), but that doesn’t follow logically from what we’ve seen. It isn’t preceded by scenes of their falling into a rut and his gradually getting bored with her. It’s preceded instead by her being clingy in a creepy way and making an accusation of him that upsets him. The evidence that their relationship has deteriorated in the way that fits with his explanation seems to have been removed.
It also feels like there’s somehow something missing in the depiction of her mental illness.
Even though she’s certainly messed up, and she has her problems coping with life, she doesn’t have as total a breakdown nor is she as non-functional as I might have expected, or as the movie seems to sometimes act like it has shown you.
For “major depression” I was anticipating something more dramatic, or someone just in a persistent funk who can’t rouse herself to do anything or care about anything. I’m not all that knowledgeable about the diagnoses and symptoms of mental illness, but someone like her isn’t really what I picture when I think of major depression. She’s immature, uses drugs and alcohol irresponsibly, is inconsiderate of others, has a temper (though also a tendency to realize when she’s gone too far and hasten to apologize), has a jealous streak, and sometimes suffers from writer’s block, among other problems or flaws. (And I would add is pretentious in her writing and voiceovers.)
You can certainly make a case that someone who behaves like that suffers from some kind of emotional problems or mental illness (or is just a garden variety asshole, as some reviewers suggested), and perhaps that depression specifically can knock someone off their game enough to result in these behaviors, but is that all that could? There’s no real process in the movie of trying to figure out what’s wrong with her, determining whether it rises to the level of a diagnosable mental illness (let alone a “major” one), ruling out various possibilities, and eventually settling on major depression. I knew from reading about the movie ahead of time that that’s what she supposedly suffers from, otherwise I would have probably said she’s just a fucked up, immature college kid who only stands out a little from the norm.
The movie also is simplistic at times in suggesting psychological causes and effects. First you’re told Dad walked out on the family, then you see she alternates between being very clingy with boyfriends, and treating them badly because she expects the worst from them. Um, let’s see, might that be “abandonment issues”?
Ricci is fairly good in what easily could have been a campy role. Jessica Lange is solid as well portraying the flawed mom.
I would have thought from the title that this movie would be a lot more about Prozac, and about the pros and cons of how anti-depressives have become so ubiquitous, how seemingly practically everyone suddenly has a supposed mental illness requiring them. But in fact, anti-depressives aren’t even mentioned until late in the movie, and as far as the broader societal implications, that’s only addressed in a sentence or two at the end. What I expected to be an important focus of the movie (I’m not sure to what extent it is of the book) turns out to be a very minor thing worth only a perfunctory nod.
So bottom line, was it the right or wrong decision to take a flyer on Prozac Nation, going against the judgment of the vast majority of the critics? I’d say the wrong decision, but not by a wide margin. The film’s more lame than not, but I’ve seen plenty that I liked less.