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Five Great Romantic Comedies About Honest-to-God Mental Illness
We're crazy about you, baby.
by Phil Dyess-Nugent
Mike Birbiglia's new film, Sleepwalk with Me, is based on Birbiglia's actual experience with sleepwalking disorder, which got increasingly out of hand as he struggled to come to grips — or, rather, avoid coming to grips — with the troubled areas in his life, including his relationship with his longtime girlfriend (played in the film by Lauren Ambrose). Romantic comedy often seems to be using symptoms of mental illness as a metaphor for the way love drives you crazy — the kind of behavior that passes for charming and passionate in movies would get you committed or served with a restraining order in real life. But some movies don't draw a line between being wild at heart and touched in the head.
1. Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)
This wonderful first feature written and directed by the late Anthony Minghella (who later made The English Patient) stars Juliet Stevenson as a woman who can't find a way to restart her life after her lover, Jamie (Alan Rickman), has died. Finally, she imagines that Jamie has returned to her, and at first she's ecstatic. He remains charming and sexy — but he's also diffident, remote, and self-centered. Whether she's hallucinating or experiencing an actual supernatural visitation, it goes on just long enough for her to remember all the ways in which Jamie fell short of being the perfect man. Once she's realized that, he disappears again, and she's ready to respond to the overtures of the new man in her life, who, conveniently enough, happens to be a psychologist.
2. The Fisher King (1991)
Terry Gilliam's most romantic movie stars Jeff Bridges as a former radio shock jock whose life and career have fallen apart. (He facetiously suggested his listeners shoot up a restaurant, and one of them did.) Hungry for redemption, he tries to help Robin Williams, whose wife died in the restaurant massacre and who's now homeless, insane, and helplessly in love with a mousy office worker (Amanda Plummer) he's too shy — and, don't forget, too homeless and insane — to talk to. The way Williams and Plummer play their scenes together, it's perfectly believable that these two miserably screwed-up people are each other's salvation.
3. Don Juan DeMarco (1995)
Few people rival Johnny Depp at seeming like a sensationally good catch while still appearing to be touring the outer planets. He plays a suicidal, delusional inmate of a psychiatric institution who entertains his shrink (Marlon Brando) with tales of his life as the legendary great lover, Don Juan. The real romance is between the patient and his burned-out doctor, who's inspired to repair his own dying marriage. Can this story possibly have a happy ending? "Well," says Brando at the end, "why not?" You'd have to be mighty cranky to want to argue with him.
4. As Good As It Gets (1997)
Jack Nicholson plays a popular novelist whose laundry list of obsessive-compulsive behaviors and assorted phobias only feed his misanthropic and sexist tendencies, since being an ass is one of the few areas in his life that he has some control over. Nicholson won an Academy Award — his third — for making his character's condition funny and his personality halfway touching. Helen Hunt won her own well-deserved Oscar for making him seem like a plausible romantic prospect for an attractive woman half his age.
5. 50 First Dates (2004)
In this inspired twist on Groundhog Day, Drew Barrymore (at her most adorable) plays a woman who keeps living the same day over and over, though the world around her is moving on; a traumatic car accident has left her with a form of amnesia that flushes the events of each day out of her memory, so that she starts every morning thinking it's October 13. Adam Sandler spends a day romancing her and is soon so enraptured that he decides that her condition is something worth trying to work with. He's so successful that, at the end, she's starting her days watching a video that not only briefs her on what's going on, but also introduces her to their daughter.
Want to meet someone whose idiosyncrasies are charming, rather than indications of real emotional damage? Meet them on Nerve.