Elliptical and mordantly witty, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted recounts living as a teen in a mental hospital for a year and a half; it stands as one of the more evocative memoirs of ’60s-era craziness. The new Winona Ryder vehicle, released now for Oscar contention, is a rather drab reworking that occasionally devolves into Sorority Snake Pit, particularly during a subterranean showdown (not in the book) with a charismatic sociopath. The heavy hand of director-cowriter James Mangold (Copland) is much apparent.
In 1967, when Kaysen entered the private McLean Hospital outside Boston, famous patients like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and James Taylor had mostly come and gone. But there was more than a whiff of privilege still hanging around her adolescent girls’ ward—some of her fellow inmates had gotten sidetracked on their way to Seven Sisters schools. In a sense, McLean served as a shelter from the world, the TV a tightly closed window from which to view Vietnam, assassinations, and riots. Kaysen’s book nimbly probes her ambivalence toward her confinement. On some level, she felt she belonged there (and she provides medical records and examples of her own delusional thinking); but she also recalls the time-killing, decidedly nontherapeutic routines with bitter irony. Ryder’s Kaysen is less complicated, a wrongly imprisoned waif making the best of a bad situation; she tries to help other troubled girls (the fire-starter, the lesbian, the pathological liar) and seeks out a good-hearted nurse (a beaming Whoopi Goldberg). Ryder’s is an earnest, well-meaning performance—and she also coproduced the movie—but the book’s interesting tension and dark humor are pretty much absent. Instead, there’s trumped-up drama—an escape, a suicide, the lurid basement confrontation—and a same-sex kiss.
Where Ryder seems to occupy as little space as possible, Angelina Jolie strides through the movie as Lisa, the resident nonconformist who challenges the others to disrupt the ward whenever possible. Not content with a larger-than-life performance, Mangold turns Lisa into an over-the-top monster in several invented episodes. Girl, Interrupted contains some nicely restrained turns, like Clea Duval as Kaysen’s Oz-obsessed roommate, but mainly it’s a showcase for Ryder’s winsome victim.