Jeremiah Chechik’s "Benny and Joon" is one of the most beloved films of the 1990s. It is the story of three lives - Benny (Aidan Quinn), his sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) and their new ’caregiver,’ Sam (Johnny Depp) - and how they intersect and enrich each other’s lives.
Joon is an exceptional young woman. She is a passionate artist who lives for her painting. She’s very bright, singular in her daily routines - and is a diagnosed schizophrenic who likes to light things on fire. Benny is Joon’s caring older brother who protects Joon from the cold realities of the outside world, trying to cocoon her and keep her safe. Sam is a slice of slightly askewed reality that neither Benny nor Joon planned on encountering. One fateful evening of poker would change all of their lives forever, bringing these three people together under highly unusual circumstances… that somehow make sense.
While both Quinn and Masterson give endearing, intimate performances, it is Johnny Depp’s Buster Keaton-esque routines and devoutly meaningful and demonstrative expressions that steal the show. With one rise or fall of his brow, Depp exudes innocence, disappointment or apprehension. From the first moment we see Sam up in his cousin’s tree, contemplating traffic, Depp’s prowess for physical comedy and nonverbal emoting endear Sam to the viewer. Much as performers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Sam is the sad clown, both rueful and comedic simultaneously. Depp proves once again that he is an actor’s actor, a chameleon who changes color with each role he plays.
"Benny and Joon" is about much more than a sad clown, however. It’s a film about facing reality and embracing it… about romance surviving trials and tribulations, about honesty, family and trust… and their eternal importance in life.
This film is obviously a labor of love and, thankfully, it shows in the quality of this DVD release by MGM Home Entertainment. The anamorphic widescreen transfer presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image is highly detailed with strong colors and very good contrast. The compression of the disc has been carefully done and is without pixelation or other compression artifacts.
The disc features a Dolby Surround audio track that is very balanced and rich. While a 5.1 channel mix would have been a nice touch to this presentation, the Dolby Surround track still sounds exceptionally good with a great dynamic range and a wide frequency response.
The extras on the DVD are all taken from the laserdisc and are a joy to watch. The Costume and Make-Up Tests are a comfortable look at how the magical, timeless ambience of the film was achieved through wardrobe and color palette, lens filtration and lighting. Rather than deflating the mystique of the film, this feature only enhances the experience of watching it.
To see the painstaking lengths that director Jeremiah Chechik pursued to attain this true sense of universal, immortal romance makes one appreciate the final product even more. Even the frames per second used for Sam’s sequences were tested in many speeds to achieve a true vaudevillian feel. This effect isn’t entirely obvious when watching his scenes and as such the supplements help immensely to give viewers a better understanding for the work. However, look closely when Sam is up to his hijinks - the slight tweaking of the film speed is seen and the effect definitely strengthens the effectiveness of the sequences.
The inclusion of the theatrical trailer only serves to show how powerful a trailer can be when it is executed correctly and with care, as this trailer is. Although Peter Gabriel’s "In Your Eyes" isn’t used in the film, it captures the emotion of the film and is perfect scoring for the trailer. The music video contained on the disk is The Proclaimers’ "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)," the infectious nineties tune that everyone sang along to on the radio before the band became known as a VH-1 one-hit-wonder.
While many audio commentaries lean toward the dry and unpersonable, the commentary track found on this release is quite the opposite. Instead of talking in terms of technical aspects, the director chats more of the non-specific, the timelessness of the film’s ingredients, both visual and story-related. From the opening sequence of trains rolling through the mountains of Washington state to the ’grilled cheese’ closing of the film, Benny and Joon’s - and Sam’s - world is opened up to the viewer and secrets are revealed: Joon’s paintings, for the most part, were done by Mary Stuart Masterson, which certainly lends more charm and authenticity to her portrayal of Joon. The photo of Benny and Joon that we see in Joon’s bedroom is actually a spliced-together photo of Masterson and Quinn as children. It’s also quite refreshing to hear just how much of the film was shot on location instead of in fabricated studio sets. Benny and Joon’s house was seen in a photograph and the director went to gas station after gas station in the area until someone recognized it. They custom-built Joon’s studio and the garden by the river.
Ultimately it is a shame that the outtakes (hinted at in the commentary) weren’t included on the disk. However, the extras, as they are, prove very warmly entertaining and informative, appealing more to sentiment than film technicalities… unless you count how it was determined that Joon would wear blue instead of yellow blouses.
Romantics and fans of comedy should certainly add this DVD to their collection. It is a sweet, honest film and a sweet, honest DVD. "Benny & Joon" is the story of three souls who take great strides toward reality through their love and because of their love for each other. It is a lesson in learning that love is unselfish and forgiving, thus ultimately greatly rewarding.