I would be remiss if I didn’t begin this review by apologizing to my friend Alice, who may or may not be reading this. Years ago, she lent me a copy of the book on which this film is based (conveniently also titled One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). By this point, it technically counts as stolen, because I still have it, and worst of all, I’ve never even read it. I tried, once, and there’s probably still a bookmark in between pages 2 and 3, which is approximately where I left off.
All of this is to say that I wasn’t familiar with the storyline, except that it took place in a mental institution in the time period when you really would not have wanted to be sent anywhere for psychiatric care. I believe the book is based in part on Ken Kesey’s experience working in such an institution. And this is just the sort of movie that, even though I’d never seen it, inspired all the horror stories and common (mis?)conceptions about what it was like to be “mentally ill.” The basic idea is that to be mentally ill is to be dangerous, unpredictable, usually violent, and condemned to live out a half-life in a locked ward, following every instruction given to you by an all-commanding omnipotent staff.
Oh, and as omnipresent that staff is during the day, apparently all the nursing staff and attendings check out at closing time. There’s a pretty significant chunk of the movie that relies on accepting the premise that at night, all of these unsafe people on a locked ward are placed under the exclusive care of a glorified janitor. Say what?
Recently, I read Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth, which is about the homeless bohemian character who captured the attention of New Yorkers after a profile in the New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell. I love Joseph Mitchell, particularly his final piece on Joe Gould, called “Joe Gould’s Secret.” It’s an all-around sad story, and Lepore’s book offers perhaps the saddest perspective of all: it really sucks to have lived with mental illness in the 1950s/60s. She surmises that Gould spent his last days in a state mental institution, where he likely received a lobotomy to treat his violent outbursts or his alcoholism – or just because that was considered to be cutting-edge treatment at the time. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.
Not having read the book, there are a few things that I don’t entirely understand about this movie. First and foremost, why is Jack Nicholson there? We’re given the sense that he’s faking it to get out of prison, though I can’t imagine why anyone would believe that one institution was better than the other. I gather that the book is narrated by the Chief (and the fact that he’s not the POV character in the film apparently caused great consternation to Kesey). I guess the idea that they’re faking it for whatever reason is supposed to make the ending all the more tragic, which sort of makes me wonder why.
I’ve only seen a couple of things Jack Nicholson has done now (probably all of them as part of this project), and my main thought is, “Oh, I wonder what Jack Nicholson is going to do in this movie.” He’s one of those actors who doesn’t really embody a role so much as dominate a film with his presence. I guess it’s fine if you like Jack Nicholson, but it’s harder to immerse yourself in a story when Jack Nicholson just pops up everywhere and reminds you that you’re watching Jack Nicholson.
I’d like to conclude with a few random observations. First, thanks to Quantum Leap (again), I knew pretty much what to expect from this movie (doctors + electroshock = bad news). Lastly, young Christopher Lloyd is kinda 1.21 giga-hottt.
Theme: Mental health
Diagnosis: Fake crazy?
First Time Watching? Yeppers
Final Verdict: A goddamn marvel of modern science