Filmmakers have to know in this day and age that they’re going to take some hits for even hinting that the mentally ill are “cute” in a movie. Writers should know it, directors and the actors playing such parts as well.
So credit cast and crew of “Barefoot” for nerve, for daring to wander into “Benny & Joon” territory. They produced a romance on-the-road-comedy about a lying, womanizing gambler who takes a woman freshly escaped from a mental hospital with him to his brother’s wedding.
Scott Speedman is Jay, an L.A. love’em and leave’em loser who is in Dutch to a loan shark for his gambling debts and on probation for…a variety of things. The scion of wealth, he’s reduced to janitorial work at a mental hospital as part of his probation. Even there, he breaks the rules, befriending the adorably ill, slipping them booze and nudie magazines.
Daisy is new to the place, arriving barefoot (Shoes “hurt my feet”) and in shock.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
Jay saves her from a first-night-in-the-ward rape, and when he skips off to go to a family wedding in Louisiana where he hopes to get money from his dad, Daisy follows him. And since she looks like Evan Rachel Wood, we see why he allows it.
“Barefoot” is “Rainman” meets “Benny & Joon,” a mental child experiencing the world and love for the first time while on the road. Daisy is utterly naive to the ways of the world. She’s prone to blurting out her first impression of someone, such as Jay’s brother’s bride at the wedding.
“God, you’re so skinny! I can see your bones!”
She picks up petals after the flower girl in that wedding — “You dropped these.” Wood makes Daisy’s doe-eyed innocence engaging and very funny between the moments when she breaks down, as disturbed people inevitably do.
Speedman (of the “Underworld” movies) makes his easy-going rogue character work, even as we’re scratching our heads at the ways Jay seems to be in denial over Daisy’s condition — whatever that is. He takes her on her first ever airline flight where the toilet frightens her, he wants her to share driving duties, sends her into a store to buy food even though we can see almost every outside world experience is new to her.
I mean, serving the girl foie gras at a wedding rehearsal dinner should have tipped him off.
Sniff, sniff — “It’s FANCY Feast!”
Director Andrew Fleming (“Dick,” “Nancy Drew”) gets everything he can out of this slight, sweet and sentimental material. Casting J.K. Simmons as the blustering, threatening medical chief of the mental hospital and Treat Williams and Kate Burton as Jay’s parents, confused by this weird beauty their son has brought into their lives, works.
And “Barefoot” dodges that sentimentalize-the-schizophrenic trap by having Jay not flirt with Daisy, and by giving her very real problems that could be caused by any number of things — things that don’t necessarily call for institutionalization.
But for all its quirks and efforts to immunize itself from criticism, “Barefoot” is never much more than utterly predictable and conventional. You can say that about any movie where rich dad (Williams) shows off his new, restored collectible antique RV to his son, mid-movie, giving away the third act road trip we know is coming.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content including references, partial nudity, brief strong language and a scene of violence
Cast: Scott Speedman, Evan Rachel Wood, Kate Burton, Treat Williams, J. K. Simmons
Credits: Directed by Andrew Fleming, written by Stephen Zotnowski. A Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:30
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