Friday, April 25, 2008

"Then She Found Me" -- * * 1/2

Helen Hunt’s directorial debut, “Then She Found Me,” is a lot more admirable and well-intentioned than it is entirely successful, but it deserves credit for taking its ‘chick flick’ territory and attempting to elevate it into something realer and more substantial than we’re used to. Hunt is clearly reaching for something grander here, and this personal project tries to explore some weighty thematic issues that play heavily into women’s lives around the time they hit middle age. But while the movie rarely settles for predictable mediocrity, the screenplay has some problems that would rear their head whenever I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Based on the novel by Elinor Lipman, the movie essentially begins when schoolteacher April’s (Hunt) life starts to fall apart, with both her adoptive mother (Lynn Cohen) dying, and her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) leaving her in the span of 24 hours. Adding to her stress, her birth mother Bernice (Bette Midler), a talk show host, shows up, suddenly desperate to be part of her daughter’s life. All the while, April is aching to have a baby, and soon enough begins a romance with Frank (Colin Firth), a single dad of one of her students.

What I like most about “Then She Found Me” is that Hunt has gone out of her way to strip away (as best she can) the phony artifice that usually clings to this genre, and keep things relatively realistic and largely kinda-sorta downbeat. While the direction lacks the sort of ‘oomph’ to really make the movie become something special or memorable, it’s a refreshing decision to create situations/feelings that might be recognizable to its target female audience, and not reek of bullshit. Things are kept relatively subtle and the movie prides itself on sharply observed little moments rather than grandiose gestures.

But while the screenplay (co-written by Hunt) refreshingly tackles issues that aren’t easy and has the balls—so to speak—to make its characters all seriously flawed, it ultimately has too many missteps to ignore. Even if one looks past the fact that the movie tries to do way too much, it’s difficult to look past the fact that the dialogue occasionally wildly simplifies issues and two characters in particular are frustrating in how poorly-defined they are. The issues of April’s craving for a baby brings up the subject of adoption multiple times, but the exchanges tend to run along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing) MOTHER: “Just adopt a baby!” APRIL: “I’m not adopting a baby from China!” For a screenplay that tries to do so much, it leaves numerous ones, such as this, dissatisfyingly unexplored.

The script also gives the film’s two most likeable presences, Midler and Broderick, with sloppily written characters. Bernice never really makes sense to us, waffling between sincere and loving, and selfish and insincere; rather than making for an interesting balance, she just comes off as two disparate characters and there’s no attempt to give us an idea of who this woman is. As for Ben, we barely get anything at all; other than that he’s a mama’s boy, he’s given little-to-no definition. We’re given no inclination if we should like him or not, and his confused motivations don’t help matters.

If you’re yet to see the trailer for “Then She Found Me,” try to avoid it at all costs. Besides selling it as a frothy romantic comedy (which is only part of the show), the 2.5 minute preview goes the “Notes on a Scandal” route and gives away every single plot point up until the film’s last five minutes. It may do a good job selling the movie, but people who show up may be disappointed that they know exactly what’s going to happen and that there’s fewer laughs than they may be expecting (it’s pushing it to even call this a dramedy.

Hunt’s performance may come off as a little shrill at times—the movie certainly gives her enough to get upset about—but she actually does a very good job of inhabiting this woman and making us understand her levels of longing, frustration and alternating optimism/pessimism. Firth does his usual charming Mr. Darcy thing, but it’s nicely balanced with sudden bursts of ferocious anger, leading me to believe that there may be an awesome serial killer role inside this oft-typecast actor. Midler makes an okay return to the screen, nicely underplaying her role here, though it’s disappointing she doesn’t have more to do. Broderick is fine here, but he could play this sort of role in his sleep by this point.

I was kind of on the fence about “Then She Found Me,” as it succeeds and fails in nearly equal measure. While it’s more perceptive and well-intentioned than other movies of its ilk, it doesn’t do a whole lot to stand out and its thematic fumbles keep it from being something special. I imagine it’ll find an audience that will appreciate the effort enough to be glad they saw it, but I hope Hunt’s next film does a better job of defining its characters, and decides to either narrow its focus, or take the time to adequately explore its central issues.

"Then She Found Me" opens today in 9 theaters in NYC and LA, and expands further on May 2nd and May 9th.


Post a Comment

<< Home