Prozac Nation

Drifting for four years without an American release, then ignominiously dumped on Starz and then home video, Prozac Nation seems to be as unwanted as its depressed protagonist, Elizabeth Wurtzel, feels most of the time. It was particularly unwanted in the period after 9/11, mere days after the movie had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival; suddenly, people had bigger things to worry about than a Harvard kid freaking out over neediness and self-loathing. The real-life Wurtzel, whose bestselling 1994 memoir inspired the film, didn’t help matters by spouting some ill-advised comments about the attacks. In the wake of the “did you hear what she said” controversy, Miramax put the movie on, apparently, its highest, tippy-toe, least accessible shelf and left it there.

Now that it’s finally seen the light of day, away from all the buzz that has nothing to do with it, Prozac Nation may be viewed as an effective and moving drama about a young woman (Christina Ricci as Elizabeth) who has no idea how to get it together and behave like a human being. Elizabeth, in this film (and in the somewhat hard-to-get-through memoir), is a self-absorbed train wreck with abandonment issues going back to when her photographer dad (Nicholas Campbell, veteran of several David Cronenberg films) dumped her neurotic mom (Jessica Lange). Elizabeth has many methods of distracting herself from her pain: self-cutting, drug abuse, and throwing herself headlong into love and rock music with equal fervor. The latter wins her a prestigious award (for her article on Lou Reed, who puts in an amusing cameo and gets in some fine performance time) and some attention from Rolling Stone and The New Yorker (for which she wrote some genuinely good pieces on rock; look ’em up sometime). None of this makes her happy, though, because as soon as the pressure is on to be a real writer, she comes down with a hellacious case of writer’s block.

Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, whose debut was 1997’s bleak and depressive thriller Insomnia (remade in 2002 by Christopher Nolan), Prozac Nation mutes everything around Elizabeth; she is a soul-sister to the daylight-haunted Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia — both wander, baffled and distrusting themselves, through an atmosphere that doesn’t seem quite real, that always seems a little off. Skjoldbjærg doesn’t treat Elizabeth’s college disasters as a satirical/surreal playpen, like Roger Avary in The Rules of Attraction; if we empathize at all with Elizabeth, who is intensely dislikable and even cruel at times (her saving grace, and the movie’s, is that she knows this full well), it’s because Skjoldbjærg lowers us into her malaise. This director not only understands depression but knows how to communicate it without turning his films into dreary downers.

Elizabeth meets a nice guy, Rafe (Jason Biggs, handling himself well in a dramatic role), and eventually pushes him away the same way she repels everyone else: Everything becomes about her, her exquisite pain, her circular failure. When Rafe goes home to Texas for the holidays and the needy Elizabeth follows him, she learns about his mentally challenged sister (Emily Perkins of Ginger Snaps, in a brief but vivid turn). A hundred years of movies have prepared us for the scene where Elizabeth sees Rafe’s compassion and gains some perspective, but instead she takes the opportunity to lash out at Rafe: “You get off on this,” she spits at the bewildered Rafe. What is wrong with this girl? My guess is that she doesn’t feel worthy of him, and her brain immediately moves to sabotage the relationship by circling back onto her flaws, and doubling back to project said flaws onto him. It’s a surprising moment with the chill of real life. A similar moment occurs between Elizabeth and erstwhile roommate Ruby (Michelle Williams in a touching performance), when we figure they’ll talk things out and become closer, but instead Elizabeth uses her superior intellect to draw blood, like a hapless depressive Hannibal Lecter who hurts others because misery loves company.

The movie was Christina Ricci’s baby (she moved heaven and earth to get the thing made, and her name is on it as a co-producer), and it’s a shame that her work was more or less buried, because this, finally, is the role in which she resolved her uningratiating comic style into a dramatic method that works for her. In the past, I’ve found Ricci’s performances enjoyable on the surface but not quite three-dimensional — she was playing a cartoon of a surly little shit. Sometimes it benefited the movies, sometimes it just read as noncommittal sullenness. Here, though, Ricci commits fully, driven to bring Wurtzel’s demons to life. She sidesteps most of the movie-star tricks that make a character lovably unlovable — Elizabeth is toxic, a black hole of need that drains everyone she meets. She even nearly traumatizes the little daughter of her therapist (Anne Heche, keeping a professional composure while showing private flickers of empathy — we’ve all read about her honeymoon with insanity) by attempting suicide in the therapist’s bathroom. Elizabeth’s behavior poisons everything she touches; she understands this, as do Ricci and Skjoldbjærg. That’s the tragedy of the movie: Elizabeth can understand all this very well, and she can helplessly watch herself fuck things up, but she can’t find her way around it.

Eventually Elizabeth is introduced to Prozac, the wonder drug that became a generation’s anodyne. It muffles her madness, but doesn’t seem to make her much happier. The movie ends with title cards telling us that Elizabeth went on to write Prozac Nation, and that a surprising number of people are on anti-depressants. It’s a shaky excuse for a happy ending, though, because we know what Elizabeth, at the end of the movie, doesn’t know: that she will in real life go on to abuse more drugs, become addicted to snorting crushed-up Ritalin pills (detailed in her book More, Now, Again), and say things about 9/11 that made it all about her. Elizabeth Wurtzel is a compelling voice, bravely unfurling her mind in all its unlovely candor, but as a human being she has serious problems. Prozac Nation offers her story without asking you to love or excuse her.

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Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, biopic, drama, underrated

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