The film is perhaps best known for Depp's humorous physical comedy routines (which are based on silent film comics Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd) and for popularizing, in the United States, the song "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by The Proclaimers. Benny & Joon was shot primarily on location in Spokane, Washington, while the train scenes at the beginning were shot near Metaline Falls, Washington.
As adults, Benjamin "Benny" Pearl (Aidan Quinn) and his mentally ill sister Juniper "Joon" Pearl (Mary Stuart Masterson), live together following the accidental death of their parents. Benny's friend Mike (Joe Grifasi) has his cinephile cousin Sam (Johnny Depp) staying with him. Joon joins a poker game at Mike's that Benny is unaware of, and loses a bet that commits Sam to live with the Pearls. Benny is at first outraged, but after an evening with Sam at the local diner and then coming home the next day to find Sam has cleaned the house, Benny decides Sam should be Joon's "housekeeper" since her other housekeepers had been scared away by Joon's outbursts.
Joon aids an illiterate Sam when he is struggling with writing to his mother, and the two go to the local diner where Ruthie (Julianne Moore) is working. She takes them on an errand, and then takes them home. After Ruthie stays for dinner, her car won't start, and Benny drives her home, where they set a dinner date. Meanwhile, left alone, Joon and Sam kiss. Benny and Ruthie have a fun date, but it ends abruptly because Benny wants to get home to Joon. Sam goes to a video store to try and apply for a job there. Benny, Joon and Sam go to a park where Sam starts doing Keatonesque tricks with his hat, attracting an appreciative crowd. Benny stays at the park to reflect and sends Joon home with Sam, where they make love. Sam then tells Joon he loves her which Joon reciprocates.
Benny tries to persuade Sam that he could do more with his life than be Joon's housekeeper and persuades a buddy to let Sam audition. When Benny makes suggestions to Sam about his comedy routines, Joon becomes agitated and makes Sam explain that he and Joon are romantically involved. An angry Benny throws Sam out of the house, yells at Joon, and shows her a pamphlet about a group home that Dr. Garvey (C.C.H. Pounder) thinks would be a better home for her. Joon starts hitting Benny and screaming "I hate you!", and he pushes her away. Feeling bad, Benny leaves to get her some tapioca. While Benny is away, Sam arrives. They pack suitcases and get on a bus, but Joon soon begins to hear voices in her head and argues with them, in great distress. Sam tries to soothe her, but she continues to become more agitated. The bus is stopped, and two men with the ambulance service restrain Joon. When Benny arrives at the hospital, Dr. Garvey tells him Joon doesn't want to see him. He finds Sam in the waiting room, and they argue. Sam who told Benny that he became a different person, goes to stay with Ruthie, who is an apartment manager. At that point, Benny begins to feel guilty about his treatment towards Joon.
Benny discovers Sam, now working at the video store and asks for his help. They go to the hospital. Benny apologizes to Joon for his behavior and persuades her to consider getting her own apartment and convinces her that Sam has come back for her. While being interviewed by Dr. Garvey, Joon sees Sam swinging on a platform outside her window and waving, and she states that she would like to try living in her own apartment. Dr. Garvey agrees to try out her choice. Benny and Joon reconcile, and Sam and Joon are reunited upon her release. At the end, Benny brings roses to Ruthie. He takes another bouquet upstairs to Joon's apartment but smiles and leaves the flowers in the doorway when he discovers Sam and Joon together contentedly making grilled cheese sandwiches with a clothes iron.Johnny Depp - Sam
Mary Stuart Masterson - Juniper "Joon" Pearl
Aidan Quinn - Benjamin "Benny" Pearl
Julianne Moore - Ruthie
Oliver Platt - Eric
C.C.H. Pounder - Dr. Garvey
Dan Hedaya - Thomas
Joe Grifasi - Mike
William H. Macy - Randy Burch
Eileen Ryan - Mrs. Smail
Liane Alexandra Curtis - Claudia
Don Hamilton - UPS Man
Waldo Larson - Waldo
Both Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn were cast in their roles at the last minute. Originally Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson were to play the title roles. Dern changed her mind, and Harrelson quit the film to take a role in Paramount's Indecent Proposal. Aidan Quinn was brought in at the last minute to replace Harrelson. Unbeknownst to Harrelson, the producer was Donna Roth, the wife of then-Paramount Studios head Joe Roth. A lawsuit later ensued with Winona Ryder who was dating Johnny Depp at the time, and was slated to play Joon after Dern quit. Depp and Ryder broke up, leaving the role of Joon open, which was given to Masterson just days before production began.
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of 4 stars. Owen Gleiberman gave the film a grade of "B", saying "the movie is full of absurdist fripperies we're meant to find magically funny; mostly they're just cute (Sam cooking up grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron, a poker game in which a snorkel mask and baseball tickets are used as stakes). Beneath the domesticated surrealism, though, Benny & Joon becomes genuinely touching—a love story about separation anxiety. Benny, the saintly grease monkey, thinks he has to devote his life to Joon in order to keep her out of an institution. Can he give her the space she needs to fall in love (and then take said space for himself)? You already know the answer, but Quinn and Masterson—now gentle, now sniping—let it play out with tender conviction." Janet Maslin wrote:
"In a more realistic film (and to some degree this film recalls Dominick and Eugene
, which also dealt with a hard-working brother taking care of a mentally impaired sibling), troubling issues might well shade the story. But Benny and Joon
succeeds in remaining blithe and sunny, directed by Jeremiah Chechik (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
) with a commercial liveliness and a suitable sense of the absurd. The film's greatest asset is the obvious conviction of its actors, who never condescend to their roles. Mr. Depp may look nothing like Buster Keaton, but there are times when he genuinely seems to become the Great Stone Face, bringing Keaton's mannerisms sweetly and magically to life. As Mr. Depp and the rest of the film makers surely must have known, an impersonation like that is an all-or-nothing proposition. Ms. Masterson, a remarkably incisive and determined actress, never sentimentalizes Joon despite many ripe opportunities to do exactly that. She remains fierce, funny and persuasive even when the film conveniently soft-pedals the reality of Joon's situation. Mr. Quinn, often in the position of playing straight man to the other two leads, still makes Benny a touchingly sincere and sympathetic figure."
In spite of its "commercially improbable story", the film became a "sleeper success", evidence of the resurgence of date movies "after a decade dominated by action film and horror films." In the first two weeks of a limited release, Benny and Joon grossed $8 million. In its domestic box office total reached over $23.2 million.
Roger Ebert writes that Joon is "schizophrenic, although the screenplay doesn't ever say the word out loud." David J. Robinson remarks that "More convincing features of schizophrenia (undifferentiated type) soon follow. We are told that Joon experiences auditory hallucinations, does well with a stable routine, and takes medication on a daily basis. Her use of language is one of her most interesting attributes. She uses the last housekeeper's surname ("Smail") to refer to anyone who might fill the position, which is how Sam (Johnny Depp) enters her life." E. Fuller Torrey calls the film "a beautifully filmed but unrealistic story about a brother who is the sole caretaker of his kid sister, who has schizophrenia. ... While the film addresses such issues as noncompliance with medication and disputes over independent living arrangements, the bad times are never too severe or long-lasting. Reviewers Mick Martin and Marsha Porter point out "[Although] most viewers will enjoy this bittersweet comedy.... Folks coping with mental illness in real life will be offended by yet another film in which the problem is sanitized and trivialized".
Although the film didn't win any awards, actor Johnny Depp gained his second Golden Globe Award nomination.
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: