Shifting Gere

Manic-depression. One minute you're irrepressible, irresponsible, and irresistible. The next minute you're slipping into a pit of deep despair, depression, and despondency. If you're like Mr. Jones, the lead character in the new film of the same name who suffers from the condition also known as bipolar affective disorder, there are drugs such as lithium that have shown some promise. If you're a movie like Mr. Jones, there's no easy cure.

Like a patient without medication, the movie struggles with highs and lows. The film is driven by a stark reality: Fewer than a third of the manic-depressives in this country receive (or faithfully maintain) treatment. Many patients, like Mr. Jones, love the sense of euphoria and creativity they experience during their manic stages and are willing to suffer the down periods in the bargain. "I'm a junkie," he explains. "I really need my highs." For the first half hour this film is a real joy ride, careening about unpredictably with Richard Gere in the driver's seat as the brown-eyed handsome man with the big mood swings. Gere's never been this charismatic; even though you suspect there's something seriously wrong with the guy, you root for him when he charms his way into a job as a carpenter (which ends abruptly on his lunch break when Mr. Jones wanders out along a narrow wooden beam high above the ground, muttering about being able to fly), romances a curvaceous bank teller, or swoops into a piano store and plays several of the instruments beautifully. In the film's most sublime moment, he becomes so overwhelmed by an orchestra's performance (and distraught at what he perceives as the ineptitude of the baton-wielding maestro) that, to the shock of the tuxedoed blue bloods in the audience, he storms the stage and begins conducting the symphony himself.

This last stunt gets him remanded to the psychiatric ward of Mar Vista State Hospital, where he insinuates himself into the care of Dr. Libbie Bowen. Dr. Bowen is the most recent addition to Mar Vista's chronically overworked staff. The ward's supervisor, played by Anne Bancroft, emphasizes the shortage of beds and the resultant need to adhere to a strict treatment policy: evaluate, medicate, vacate. Dr. Bowen accepts the dictum and quickly establishes herself as intelligent, dedicated, and very, very lonely. Can you see the doctor-patient romance coming a mile away? Smoldering Swede Lena Olin makes a game effort, but she's just too attractive to bring much credibility to the role. Not that there aren't attractive psychiatrists and patients, but a hunky manic-depressive like Gere and a sexy shrink like Olin in the same ward? What are the odds?

Victims of bipolar disorder who earn their livelihoods in creative professions often fear that their talents are blunted by lithium's side effects, which can include lethargy, decreased enthusiasm, impaired ability to focus attention, and slight memory loss. Ironically, these are exactly the same problems that plague the long second act of Mr. Jones. Once the soulful glances between the therapist and her charge commence, the movie shifts Geres and becomes a predictable romance. The creativity of the opening is dulled. The movie doesn't become totally lobotomized, but it drags.

Mr. Jones soon leaves the hospital, but his mood crashes and he disappears. Dr. Bowen finds him and tries to help him get better, and he voluntarily returns to the hospital. There he saves her life when another patient freaks out and attacks her. She confronts him with Painful Truths. He runs away by checking out of Mar Vista. She follows him in the rain. They kiss. They get very wet. Her mascara runs. Eventually, they do the nasty. You don't get to see much of it. She gets scared and backs off. He can't handle the rejection. There's a big climactic scene on a rooftop that brings the whole thing full circle to the house where Mr. Jones first got into trouble for impersonating a carpenter and wondering if he could fly. If you need to ask whether or not the ending is a happy one, there's probably a bed at Mar Vista with your name on it.

So Mr. Jones is not the next One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Maybe it's not even the next Awakenings. Still, the movie is not without its charms. Gere's performance, particularly in those frenetic opening moments, breaks new ground for the oft-maligned actor. He's called upon to be at once powerful and vulnerable, dazzling and sensitive, a man bursting with a sense of his own invincible omniscience in one scene, shuffling about in a slump-shouldered depression a while later, and he's up to the challenge. While Gere's work here is not likely to threaten the careers of Nicholson and De Niro, neither is it anything to be ashamed of. It's almost good enough to atone for Pretty Woman. (Okay, maybe not.)

The script, written by Eric (Suspect) Roth and Michael (The Shadow Box) Cristofer, boasts some witty dialogue and concerns itself just enough with manic-depressive illness to pretend to take itself seriously as a topical-medical-issue film. From a medical professional's point of view, any episode of St. Elsewhere was probably better-written and more informative, but so what? You want cutting-edge medical revelations, read Lancet. The forbidden-love angle, tired as it is, is what the filmmakers are counting on to lure gullible ticket-buyers into theaters. I get depressed just thinking about it.


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