Prozac Nation

Is your being a fuck-up a sign of a national trend?
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2001
Director: 
Erik Skjoldbjærg
Starring: 
Christina Ricci, Jessica Lange, Jason Biggs, Anne Heche, Michelle Williams
The Setup: 
Incredibly damaged, emotionally manipulative woman abuses everyone who comes in contact with her while ruining her life and the lives of those around her. But it's not her fault, because she's depressed!
Discussion: 

I was sort of looking forward to this, because I had heard that the main character was incredibly narcissistic, and I thought I could get some fun out of how the movie expects viewers to sympathize with her. I also heard that the thing as a whole was BAD. The first point is absolutely true, the second not so much, and I found it a very satisfying watch.

First, a little history. Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote the memoir Prozac Nation about her experiences, and it became a bestseller. I haven't read it, and I have no plans to. She got a journalism scholarship to Harvard, and a column in Rolling Stone while still a freshman, and pissed it all away in drugs and sex and depression, then started on Prozac, wrote the memoir and now she's a writer. Christina Ricci was apparently very affected by the book and bought the rights to it. It was made by director Skjoldbjærg [of the original Insomnia], but shelved after it received a weak reception at the Toronto Film festival, and after Wurtzel had this to say about 9/11: "I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought, 'This is a really strange art project.' It was the most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water. It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone's head." The voice of America collectively told her to keep her mixed metaphors to herself, sales of her books dropped, and the movie sat on the shelf since 2001. Since the Weinsteins are leaving Miramax, this movie was pushed to video in an effort to clear the slate before the new regime moves in.

The story follows Ricci as Wurtzel just before she leaves for Harvard. She has severe Daddy issues owing to her father deserting the family four years earlier [when she was 15? Is this such a trauma?] and her mother's distrust of men. Wurtzel is shown cutting herself, and allusions are made to troubles in her past. In voice-over, she bemoans how she just can't be normal, and fit in with other people. What starts out looking like severe self-involvement STAYS looking like severe self-involvement, and as Wurtzel outrageously abuses everyone who comes in contact with her, all sympathy for her is irretrievably lost. During all this she expects sympathy because she's depressed, the people she abuses don't "understand" why she abuses them, and basically just how very hard everything is for her.

Nevertheless, the movie is a fascinating portrait, if not of its intended topic, depression, then of a severely emotionally retarded absolute narcissist. Wurtzel very successfully makes plays for the special attention of everyone she comes into contact with by laser-pinpointing the exact thing that will insult them the most, then turning their anger into guilt by portraying them as cold-hearted because they don't care to "understand" why she would abuse them as she does. A good example of this is when she loses her virginity to this guy Noah, then has a party announcing it to everyone, which hugely humiliates Noah. Wurtzel is the victim of this, of course, because Noah "doesn't want to hear about" how she had to do it because she's so fucked up. Wurtzel never takes any responsibility for anything she does and invariably portrays herself as the victim, and for a while the film is a kind of emotional slasher movie as the only interest is in watching her heap ever more egregious abuses on those near her.

For a while, I thought this would be a fascinating psycho-sexual tale as Elizabeth gets revenge and attempts to turn the tables on men, using them and throwing them away as some of them do to women, but it didn't turn out this way. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating case study, and contains wonderful performances by nearly everyone. Ricci and Lange portray hideous characters, but they give good performances as these characters. Lange's shrieking histrionics would place her in the running for a Mommie Dearest lifetime achievement award if the rest of the movie were only a little less raw and depressing. Anne Heche is typically intense and convincing-it's too bad her career skidded off the rails, because she's really very good. And it's very nice to see Jason Biggs be something other than an affable moron.

The problem is that the point of view of the movie takes no critical distance on Wurtzel, and expects viewers to discount her behavior as just the sad, sad effect of a depression that MUST supersede any expectation that she take any responsibility for her behavior. It's an amusing parallel to the events IN the film that the movie attempts to manipulate viewers in the exact same way that Wurtzel unleashes on her fellow characters. This is the big miscalculation, as Wurtzel's behavior is beyond any audience sympathy, and the filmmakers just make themselves look like dupes-especially in the included documentary, that shows that the writer and director buy whole-hog into Wurtzel's worldview. It's all someone else's fault. It's society's fault. The film might have worked if it took a critical distance on her and treated the whole thing as a portrait of a mess. It remains interesting until the end, when Wurtzel tries to turn the fact that SHE is a fuck-up into evidence of a SOCIETAL TREND [she's just a chronicler!] of how America is full of such depressed people just using drugs to hold it together. This, however, supports the self-serving Wurtzel worldview that SHE is the one to peel back the thin veneer of what we call "normal" because it is only she that feels so deeply. A title after the movie ends seems to equate the fact that Wurtzel's memoir became a bestseller with a full mental health recovery-not just more evidence of the shit that gets published and read these days. We then get a disingenuous lamentation about the prevalence of antidepressant use in America. This may be a troubling trend, but the reality that Elizabeth Wurtzel is a world class fuck-up doesn't necessarily prove anything about it.

Should you watch it: 

If you get some sort of vicarious enjoyment out of watching an absolute narcissist ruin the lives of herself and others. I know I do!

RELATED MOVIES:
OVERNIGHT is a documentary about a guy who also experiences success and pisses it all away by being an asshole to everyone in sight.