Prozac Nation was a memorable memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel about her dysfunctional adolescence and college years. Wurtzel's bitchy self-deprecation and righteous indignation made her a charismatic narrator. It is a book beloved especially by young women who themselves have a reputation for being difficult. Wurtzel is brilliant and self-destructive, and despite the pressures of being an undergraduate at Harvard University on a journalism scholarship, she manages to not only survive but also get published by Rolling Stone magazine. Because the story is told from her point of view, it is easy to sympathize with her even when she is being especially irrational. When she goes on Prozac, and becomes calmer, we are pleased for her.
When in the film version of Prozac Nation, Christina Ricci's Lizzie goes on Prozac, we are pleased not so much for her but rather all those around her, because they don't have to deal with her annoying behavior so much. We might be just as pleased if she had been put in a straightjacket. The problem for the movie is that inevitably, we see Lizzie through the eyes of others, and she is not a sympathetic character. This is enhanced by Ricci's performance, which really brings out Lizzie's dislikable traits. Ricci is far from the doe-eyed Winona Ryder's portrayal of Susanna Kaysen in the movie version of Girl, Interrupted, and we are not inclined to think that she just needs to be understood or given some sympathy. She is closer to the character played by Angelina Jolie in the same film, angry and manipulative, but Ricci does not have the smoldering sexuality of Jolie, which is largely what helped win her over to audiences in that film. In this film, Ricci does a great deal of voice-over, saying the words of Wurtzel from the book, and that certainly makes the film more interesting, but for the film, actions speak louder than words. Lizzie tries the patience of her mother, her friends and her boyfriends, and she is impossible to be with. Even when she makes a suicidal gesture at the end of the film, it just seems like manipulation rather than despair.
This movie was made in 2000 in many locations, and after being bought by Miramax in 2001 was originally scheduled to be released in US theatres in 2002, but kept on getting delayed and eventually was released only to DVD in 2005. Clearly the movie studio lost confidence that audiences would like it, and since its release the DVD has received mostly unenthusiastic reviews. While it is a film about mental illness, the studio has resorted to showing Ricci lying topless on a mattress on the front cover, and looking voluptuous in a satin night dress on the back. (Ricci does appear nude in the film, quite gratuitously, sitting on her bed naked at the start while her mother comes in and urges her to prepare for her first day at college. But the film has very little sensuality or pleasure -- Lizzie tends to be either sullen or frenzied.) The film does have some major stars, yet their presences do not help much. Jessica Lange plays Lizzie's mother, often seeming just as angry and twisted as her daughter, and she seems to overact in these scenes. In other scenes she is hurt and confused by Lizzie's behavior, and we feel more sympathetic for her. The icy Anne Heche plays Lizzie's psychotherapist, in a rather stilted performance who manages to ride out Lizzie's tantrums, although we get very little sense of what goes on between the two of them. Jason Biggs plays one of Lizzie's boyfriends, who does a passable job, although he is a little wooden. The direction by Norwegian Erik Skjoldbjaerg (who directed the original version of Insomnia) is not bad, although the film as a whole never seems to come together, and sometimes it feels clichéd like a made-for-TV movie. In an interesting shot in the "Anatomy of a Scene" show about the film, we see that the original screenplay of Prozac Nation was written by Galt Neiderhoffer and Alex Orlovsky, and was then rewritten by Frank Deasy, another sign that the directors and producers could not decide what they wanted to do with the story.
Yet it seems uncharitable to blame the individuals involved for the artistic problems of the film. The problem is more fundamental: the whole project of trying to make a Hollywood movie of Prozac Nation is ridiculous, because the lead character is so unlikable. The DVD does not have any extras except for a standard Sundance "Anatomy of a Scene," but it would have been fascinating to see the director's cut, hear a frank commentary about the making of the film, and see what scenes were deleted, because one might have got a sense of the attempts that the producers made to make the film more commercial. The film would have had more chance of success if it had given up on the attempt to make Lizzie a character to identify with, and rather had gone the other way, being more antagonistic to Lizzie. As an independent movie with a more experimental approach, it would have had more room to explore other aspects of the story. The reference to the antidepressant Prozac makes one think it is a film about depression, but if anything it is about personality disorder. We know from Wurtzel's subsequent memoir More, Now, Again that Prozac did not help her in the long term, and she headed headlong into addiction. Yet even without that knowledge, we could see from Ricci's fluctuating moods and her constant twisting of people close to her that this is not about straightforward depressed moods. In the "Anatomy of a Scene," the writer and director talk a lot about depression, and maybe this is another cause of their problems, because they seem to fundamentally miss the fact that depression is only a small element in Lizzie's psychological profile. It is only because they keep close to the tenor of Wurtzel's book that they retain some consistency.
So this film is flawed, but Ricci's performance is very strong in capturing Wurtzel's unsympathetic character. Anyone who is interested in films depicting mental disorder should see this precisely because of the questions it raises about what disorder Lizzie has and how it might be possible to depict those who behave in such ways with more compassion.
· Review of Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
· Review of More, Now, Again by Elizabeth Wurtzel
· Review of Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.
· Review of Girl, Interrupted DVD
© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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