Its heart is in the right place, and there are certainly things to like about Benny & Joon, but ultimately this dramedy just never won me over.
Benny and Joon are an adult brother and sister who live together in Spokane. (By the way, the milk bottle building that appears in the film is real. I’ve been through Spokane and seen it.) Benny runs an auto repair shop. Joon is a sometime artist who has some kind of mental illness that leaves her only intermittently functional. Left on her own there is a significant risk she’ll burn down the house or otherwise do something destructive or injurious to herself or others. So Benny hires a series of housekeepers to be with her when he is unavailable to babysit her himself.
Unfortunately, it’s a “series” of housekeepers because Joon has tantrums and sooner or later drives each one away in frustration. Early in the film we find out that Benny is being pressured to throw in the towel and have Joon institutionalized, a move he is very reluctant to go along with.
Meanwhile, one of Benny’s friends and poker partners is being driven to distraction by a cousin named Sam who has come to stay with him temporarily.
Sam, well played by a young Johnny Depp, is a starry-eyed non-conformist, a “holy fool” type with no discernible ambition, rancor, or preoccupation with being like other people or being liked by other people. He loves the old silent film comics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, and spends much of his time recreating some of their classic routines. If there happens to be an audience around when he does, they invariably love his act, and he’s cool with that, but he seems barely aware of their presence and is just as likely to perform the routines alone or home with just one or two other people present.
The point is that he loves it as art. The idea of doing what he does to be popular or to make money for the most part doesn’t occur to him. And when such an opportunity comes to him without his actively seeking it, he doesn’t run from it, but he is so indifferent to it that he makes no special effort to take advantage of the opportunity.
In the poker games Benny plays with his friends, instead of betting money or chips, they bet “things,” like auto parts, tickets to a minor league baseball game, tools, etc. At a certain level that’s kind of dumb, in that it would never work in real life since all the players would have to agree on the value of each item, leading to endless disputes and haggling. But it’s not intended to be realistic, but as just a little bit of humor for people who don’t really understand poker.
Plus it provides a way to get Sam with Benny and Joon, which is necessary to the plot. One night at the poker game, when Benny is out of the room, Joon sits in, and loses a hand wherein one of the items at stake is to take Sam off his cousin’s hands. So as a result, much to the chagrin of Benny, Sam moves in with them.
Joon and Sam, both weirdos but of different types, soon form a bond. That’s mostly a positive thing, though Benny does have his moments where he finds it difficult to accept, perhaps in part because he’s so used to being the only one who can connect with Joon, so there’s a bit of a jealousy factor.
So why did Benny & Joon not appeal to me more?
Some of the humor—like the aforementioned poker gag—falls flat, but I don’t think that’s the main factor.
I felt like the film was assuming that viewers couldn’t help but be charmed by the lovable misfits Joon and Sam, and cheered by their coming together, but I felt only a little of that.
Sam I mostly don’t have a problem with. He’s just a good-hearted naïf. I don’t think he’s dumb necessarily; there are occasional indications that he has more depth than he normally shows. I find his style of non-conformity mostly appealing. He marches to the beat of his own drum, as they say, and just hasn’t developed an interest in most of the materialistic things that drive “regular” people, which is to his credit. He’s someone I wouldn’t object to having in my life.
Joon, however, I found decidedly uncharming. Sam is different largely by choice, and that choice to live by unconventional values is one I agree with more than disagree with. Joon is different because she’s mentally ill. And I just didn’t respond to her illness-based behavior as humorously quirky the way I think the filmmakers intended, but instead as kind of creepy.
She’s basically a 3 year old. She’s totally self-centered and prone to tantrums if she doesn’t get her way.
She’s also arrogant. She puts people down with snappy remarks, but most of that hit me not as funny but just as a pathetic effort to establish her own superiority. She rarely manifests any appreciation toward those—most notably Benny—who put up with her antics and make the necessary sacrifices to allow her to continue living at home and just doing art or whatever she pleases all day.
She’s someone I would not want in my life, as her propensity to set fires or to lose her temper and throw and break things and such would have me constantly on edge around her.
The bottom line is that Sam is childlike, which is mostly good, and Joon is childish, which is mostly not.
I’m probably coming across as more harsh concerning Joon than I intend. Certainly one can make the point that insofar as her unappealing traits are a product of mental illness it is unfair to hold her responsible for them, but even granting that, it doesn’t change the fact that her unappealing traits are unappealing. But it’s not like she’s a horrible person or anything. And certainly there’s something about her that brings out an almost maternal side of Sam that’s nice to see.
I opened by saying that Benny & Joon never won me over. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that it never fully won me over. It’s not like I can’t understand why many people love it. There’s a real sweetness to this movie, including the ending. I certainly wouldn’t steer people away from it.