"Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another."
--Ambrose Bierce, "The Devil's Dictionary"
One would think that Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjaerg had Bierce's aphorism in mind when he set about to film Elizabeth Wurtzel's best-selling, autobiographical book, "Prozac Nation," in 2001. What he forgot was that Bierce was being cynical, sarcastic, his definition meant to be ironic. The movie is nothing of the sort and produces only misery for the audience.
A mark of the film industry's faith in "Prozac Nation" is the fact that it was made in 2001, and then when it found an international distributor, Miramax, was released only in limited overseas markets, never premiering in the United States until it appeared on cable in 2005. Or maybe the fact that the book's author said the film was "horrible" had something to do with the distributor's reluctance to show it theatrically. In any case, they probably made the right decision.
If you think the main character in this story is depressed, you should have seen me by the time it was over. There isn't a lighthearted moment in the picture. Poor Ms. Wurtzel. I trust she's gotten over most or all of the despondency and mood swings she describes (having a best-selling book tends to help with that), but if she hasn't, this movie won't do her any favors. It's no wonder she didn't like it.
The film, which may or may not duplicate the book, I haven't read it, covers Ms. Wurtzel's college years in the early-to-mid 1980s, at a time in her life when everything bad for her came to a head. It's a wonder she lived through it, as suicide appears to have been one of her considered options.
Elizabeth, played somewhat beyond the depth of actress Christina Ricci, looks back on her life from the perspective of the typewriter, where she tells us that her troubles all started with her entrance into womanhood in junior high. Then we flash forward to a bright, talented Elizabeth about to enter Harvard University on a journalism scholarship. Her pushy mother (Jessica Lange) is overjoyed because she hopes the new environment will be Elizabeth's salvation. It never occurs to her that she and her ex-husband, Elizabeth's father (Nicholas Campbell), may be the daughter's biggest problems. The mother is obsessive about her daughter's welfare; the father has virtually abandoned the two of them; and when the parents are briefly together they do nothing but scream at each other.
We're told that Elizabeth never fit in with other kids in junior high and high school and hung out with her mom most of the time, the girl an outcast, a stranger among her peers. She expects to find people at Harvard with whom she has more in common. What she finds, or seeks out, is an endless cycle of cigarettes, booze, drugs, parties, and sex; followed by more smokes, drink, drugs, parties, and sex. It only increases her rage.
Still, she is by her own admission a brilliant writer, if obviously blocked by her inner demons. If the movie is any indication, though, she seems intolerably serious and dull. It is mainly Elizabeth (or Ms. Ricci's portrayal of her) that makes the film slow and tedious, a story about people we would never want to know in real life, no matter how brilliant they think they are.
Elizabeth goes on to say that boys never noticed her in high school, while in college they're all over her, which might have been true of the real Elizabeth Wurtzel but doesn't explain how in the movie boys would have overlooked so beautiful a young woman. Was she ugly and suddenly bloomed into a looker? Not according to the movie's flashback where we see that Elizabeth was always pretty. Was she a totally horrible person and suddenly bloomed into an attractive personality? Again, not according to the movie, where she appears to be a horrible person even in college. Oh, well.
In 1985 Elizabeth won the college journalism award for her music articles and was approached to write for "Rolling Stone" magazine. We're never told in the film how she found the time for school or writing in between bouts of alcohol, drugs, parties, and nervous breakdowns, which is all the movie dwells on.
It doesn't matter that the story is true; if it's uninteresting or unappealing, it isn't going to work. There is nothing in "Prozac Nation" to make us care about the lead character, the supporting characters, or any of their actions.
As Elizabeth becomes more and more clinically depressed, her friends try to help her out: her roommate, Ruby (Michelle Williams); her boyfriend, Noah (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers); her later boyfriend, Rafe (Jason Biggs); and her therapist, Dr. Sterling (Anne Heche). But none of these people register. They're virtual ciphers. It is only Jessica Lange as the mother who seems true. The others are walking through their paces like zombies. The ever-lovely Ms. Heche, especially, appears to be posing as a fashion model in most of her scenes.
We're advised that Elizabeth wanted people to understand her, but she didn't understand herself. Fair enough. Then she goes on to tell us in a constant voice-over that she didn't think she was entertaining enough for people. So, what made the filmmakers think the movie would be any more entertaining?
Ms. Wurtzel's book may have been a best-seller and struck a chord with readers, many of whom were no doubt similarly depressed, I don't know; but the movie has nothing to offer but shallow thoughts and shallow performances about shallow people. It's no wonder Prozac became Elizabeth's best friend.
"Prozac Nation" is rated R for profanity, drug use, nudity, and sexual situations. Nothing helps.
Buena Vista engineers have been more than willing lately to transfer their products to disc in anamorphic, enhanced, widescreen at a high bit rate, meaning that they are looking better than ever. This transfer is no exception. The screen size will nicely fill up a 1.78:1 ratio widescreen television, and while the picture is slightly grainy at times, it is generally of superior quality. Colors are deep and definition is reasonably sharp. Moiré or motion effects are at a minimum, even in areas of closely spaced horizontal lines like brick walls. Perhaps the overall video quality leans to the darkish side, but I would be surprised if anyone seriously objected to any of it.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound makes its presence known early on with some good, deep bass thumps. Later, a few rock albums display a similarly strong low end. Then, too, the midrange tonal balance seems fairly linear. And that's about the extent of the audio. There is very little use of the surrounds, and with voices firmly anchored out in the center speaker only and dialogue making up probably 99% of the movie, it's like listening to a very good monaural soundtrack.
There is hardly anything in the extras department but a nineteen-minute Sundance Channel featurette, "Anatomy of a Scene." In the feature the filmmakers--the director, producer, writer, editor, and actors--discuss Elizabeth's birthday scene in some detail. The analysis is as dreary as the movie, but at least it's more revealing. In addition, there are fifteen scene selections, with a chapter insert; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Scandinavian films have something of a reputation for their coolness. Maybe it's the climate. It was probably the success of Skjoldbjaerg's original version of "Insomnia" that inspired somebody at Miramax to pick up the director's "Prozac Nation" for distribution. But success in one area does not always translate to success in another. "Prozac Nation" moves along at the speed of a Norwegian glacier, yet it provides the observer with nowhere near the pleasure. One thing's sure: If Prozac works as an antidepressant and the FDA requires truth in labeling, the movie's title should be "Anti-Prozac Nation." It is a most depressing experience.