Silent Clown, Chatty Killer

In the very whimsical fable Benny & Joon, Johnny Depp plays an eccentric, sensitive aspiring clown named Sam who wears a porkpie hat like his idol Buster Keaton, sits in trees and uses an iron and an ironing board to make grilled cheese sandwiches. A shy loner, he finds his soul mate in Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), bright, articulate, artistic, but mentally unbalanced. Subject to breakdowns at the slightest agitation, she's looked after by her loving but overprotective brother Benny (Aidan Quinn), a handsome mechanic who seems to be using Joon's precarious mental state to avoid his own private life.

Movies that make mental illness cute and poetic tend to give me the heebie-jeebies, and this one doesn't help its case by being evasively vague about the nature of Joon's condition. That said, it should be granted that "Benny & Joon" is one of the more palatable and inventive examples of this suspect genre, its inherent sappiness leavened by screenwriter Barry Berman's wit and director Jeremiah Chechik's clever use of familiar silent-comedy routines. But if audiences clutch this teddy bear of a movie to their breasts, the bulk of the credit goes to the deft and likable cast. In anyone else's hands, the mimelike Sam would be an insufferably fey concoction. But Depp plays him with such conviction that you can't keep your eyes off him. It's not merely Depp's physical dexterity that impresses: he has a melancholic inner stillness that's genuinely Keatonesque. Edgy and tightly wound, Masterson makes a good romantic contrast to his dewy reticence, and Quinn (with his Clift-like quaver) more than holds his own as the straight man in this carnival of quirk. If you can accept it on its fablelike terms, the wishfully rosy resolution will seem heavenly; more skeptical viewers may have an allergic reaction to the whole concept. Your call.

There are no dogs in this scathingly funny Belgian mock documentary, but there's plenty of bite--enough to guarantee at least a few walkouts every time the film is screened. Its creators--Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde--use graphic, disturbing violence to mount a subversive satire about violence and the media. A young film crew documents the daily rounds of a professional assassin named Ben (Poelvoorde), a loquacious and self-satisfied ferret of a man who proudly shows off his techniques as he bumps off old ladies, children, mobsters, postmen, all the while quoting poetry and discoursing on the proper way to dispose of corpses in the local quarry. During one shoot-out in an abandoned building, the crew comes face to face with a rival video team, who are following another killer. Ben blows them away. As the body count mounts-including, bad luck, the crew's unfortunate sound man-the filmmakers carry on without a peep of moral protest, and even pitch in to help Ben dispatch his bloody business. Up to a point, the deadpan jest is blackly hilarious-until a vicious rape and murder forces the audience to gag on its own nervous laughter. The filmmakers of "Man Bites Dog" know exactly what they're doing: their shock tactics are in the service of a sophisticated and self-reflexive game plan, designed to implicate the viewer as well as the killer and his film crew in this violent hall of mirrors. Having made us aware of how movies have numbed our souls, the film upsets our complacency and lets the horror sink in. Expertly shot in black and white on a shoestring budget (though maybe 10 minutes too long), this fierce, smart jape gets you shaking with laughter, then leaves you simply shaking.