Critics, defenders split over ‘Irene’

From the Oregonian, June 24, 2000

In Hollywood, it pays to be mentally ill.

The film “Me, Myself and Irene,” in which Jim Carrey portrays a schizophrenic cop with multiple personalities and an obsession for a girl named Irene, is expected to be the summer’s blockbuster comedy. It opens today.

But not everyone is laughing.

“Movies like this discourage young people from seeking the help they need if they, too have a mental illness,” said Jason Renaud, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Portland. “It laughs at them and tells them they’re freakish, foolish, the butt of every joke and it’s just cruel.”

Carrey’s response? Get over yourself.

“We had a lot of dumb people complaining about ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ too,” the star was quoted as saying about his previous movie that poked fun at two not-so-bright friends.

The mental-health advocacy group has written several letters to 20th Century Fox executives, asking them to pull the movie’s “From Gentle to Mental” promotional ads. The group also asked that Carrey make public service announcements educating people about the mental disorder and encouraging them to get treatment.

“They need to realize it’s not OK to do this,” Renaud said. “These people many times lead miserable lives, and they don’t need this, too.”

Carrey’s publicist, Marleah Leslie, said people shouldn’t look too deeply at the film.

“It’s just a lighthearted comedy and it wasn’t made to make fun of people,” Leslie said.

But the movie does perpetuate the misconception that schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder are the same illness.

Schizophrenia is caused by imbalances in the brain’s chemicals and leads to hallucinations or delusions.

Multiple personality disorder, also known as split personality, is a rare illness in which a person actually has several separate personalities. No thought disturbances are usually involved with multiple personalities, and they’re usually not violent as portrayed in “Irene.”

“People need to realize that you can be perfectly normal and live with a mental illness,” said Dr. Lauretta Young, the mental health department chief for Kaiser Northwest in Portland. “I worry the message of hope is lost here.”

Phyllis Fasciani of Southwest Portland has lived with bipolar disorder since she was 16. Commonly called manic-depressive disorder, it involves mood swings from hyperactivity and irritability to extreme depression. The 57-year-old remembers the days before her illness was diagnosed as ones filled with denial and alcohol.

“No one knew what was wrong with me. I would just get institutionalized every once in a while,” she said.

And mental illness was not the only battle she had to fight. When she was 49, Fasciani got a diagnosis of breast cancer. She describes the cancer as a “walk in the park” compared with her mental illness.

“People were more willing to see that as a serious problem. But they thought that my mental problems were a character defect, or something I would just snap out of,” she said. “This Carrey movie isn’t helping anything. He absolutely disgusts me. He’s making millions and not realizing he’s walking all over the backs of the mentally ill.”

Still, though, there’s an undeniable appeal about Jim Carrey that transcends complaints. Renaud admits he’ll see the movie, despite his objections.

So will Dr. Magnus Lakovics, regional mental health director of Providence Health Systems in Portland. He’ll also probably take his 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.

“(Carrey’s) got that slapstick comedy that I think is funny,” Lakovics said.