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Saturday, Aug. 26, 2000

'GIRL, INTERRUPTED'

The moment a life spirals out of control


Thought you could never be 17 years old again, didn't you. Thought that time of your life was over, packed up and shipped out like a box of old clothes (and maybe you even said "good riddance").

See "Girl, Interrupted" and that entire era comes rushing back, in a way that would give Marcel Proust something to think about. Once again you're 17 and saying hello to your friends -- the kind who hurt you, worried you, embarrassed you to the point of oh-god-I-just-want-to-die.

"Girl, Interrupted" is like a perfectly distilled bottle of this "want-to-die" feeling. Drink a glassful and the world spins, goes into reverse. One starts to remember the oddest details, like the pattern of a friend's pajamas at a slumber party, the taste of coffee after crying all night, the sudden twist of a girlfriend's mouth the split second before she tells you some awful childhood secret.

The question is this: Do we thank or berate the movie for triggering memories like that?

Based on the book by Susanna Kaysen, "Girl, Interrupted" is the story of her experiences in a mental institution in the mid-'60s, whose distinguished clientele included the likes of Ray Charles and Jackson Pollock. In the memoir, Kaysen recalls the exact moment when she went tottering over the edge: in an art museum, in front of Vermeer's "Girl, Interrupted at Her Piano." The girl in the painting was trying to tell her something, something that began with "No" or "Don't." Kaysen finally tore her eyes away and went home. A short while later, she tried to kill herself. Upon admission to the institution, Kaysen was diagnosed as suffering from a "borderline personality disorder."

Winona Ryder plays Susanna Kaysen, a bookish teenager alienated both from home life with her cocktail party-loving parents and from her posh suburban high school. After a string of love affairs that include a classmate's father, Susanna attempts suicide.

"Maybe I was just crazy. Maybe it was the '60s. Or maybe I was a girl . . . interrupted" is Susanna's private self-description. To the world, she offers no explanations. Her worried (and disgusted) parents send her to "Claymore," for a "long and complete rest cure."

As an institution, Claymore is not bad. Recall what it was like in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and the place seems like "a five-star hotel," to use the words of head nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg). Valerie has been around and seen many cases, and knows how to calm patients with a single look. Even sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie) respects Valerie and spares her the abuse she showers on everyone else.

Susanna is both attracted to and repelled by the charismatic Lisa. Getting close to her means trouble, but staying away is impossible. Everyone on the ward revolves around Lisa: the "pathological liar" Georgina (Clea Duvall), Daisy (Brittany Murphy), who gorges and binges, the anorexic Janet (Angela Bettis) and Polly (Elisabeth Moss), who set fire to her face when she was 10 years old.

Strangely (or not), there seems to be nothing wrong with any of the girls that a few weeks in Bermuda wouldn't cure. But the story gradually reveals that the veneer of near-normality is a phenomenon that exists only within the walls of Claymore. Once the girls are outside again, they become confused and spin out of control. This is why Lisa, who runs away regularly, always comes back battered and miserable. Susanna refuses to leave even when she's offered the chance. Daisy finally checks out and gives ordinary living a shot but soon hangs herself in the bathroom.

Director James Mangold ("Copland") gives Ryder and Jolie a free hand and they pretty much take over the entire movie. Jolie won an Academy award for the role and though critics tend to give her all the attention, Ryder certainly deserves her share of the ink. At 29, she still manages to look and act like a disturbed 17. She can fling abuse, chain smoke, push food around on her plate, even shave her legs -- all these actions are charged with something sweet and childlike that can only be described as . . . 17.

Interestingly, everyone in the cast is older than their parts call for, but none of the others carry off the performance with quite the same conviction. Save Jolie. In her, you will recognize that one special friend who, by turns, made life unbearable with pain or delirious with joy, who was wilder, smarter and sexier than a platoon of football captains combined. Where'd she go?

She's right here.

"Girl, Interrupted" opens Sept. 2 at the Yebisu Garden Cinema.


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