Monday, May 5, 2008

Then She Found Me: it's never too late to be less bland

Age has arguably been pretty good to Helen Hunt. Founded on her television work, her star persona, whether sculpted by the actress or projected upon her, became most closely associated with safe, cute, likeably bland, Oscar-friendly, middle-brow, JC Penny earnestness, and with providing sturdy support to Hollywood big boys. Just survey the quartet of films she made in 2000, her zenith year—What Women Want, Cast Away, Pay It Forward, Dr T and the Women—was there room in any of these for Hunt to be anything but the patient, kind-hearted love interest to Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey or Richard Gere? It’s a wonder that in every case she still managed to leave an impression, to be above all resilient and genuinely affecting. For those who prefer their movies to with significantly more edge, Hunt became something like a guilty pleasure.

She seemed to have vanished from movies not long after, though the 2004 Oscar Wilde adaptation A Good Woman suggested that Hunt may be most appealing when duplicitous, dangerous, and not at all the girl next door. The movie itself had problems and did no business, but Hunt was suddenly in full bloom, playing a seductress-opportunist who actually managed to out-sex Scarlett Johansson. Hunt vanished again and is only now returning in a starring role, but this time on her own terms. Then She Found Me, adapted from Elinor Lipman’s novel by Hunt with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin, marks Hunt’s directorial debut, and while not a radical departure from her past work, her foray into this increasingly rare genre—the comedy for adults—does finally place her firmly in the spotlight and possesses an unusual maturity and depth.

Hunt plays April, a kindergarten teacher pushing 40, raised an orphan, and so painfully hungry to generate a child from her very own womb that malicious fate seems to bite her right in the ass as punishment. Her adoptive mother dies, her childish husband of less than a year (Matthew Broderick) ditches her, and the pathetic quickie break-up sex results in a very awkwardly timed pregnancy. To boot, her biological mother (Bette Midler) appears out of nowhere, a blowsy, affably obnoxious talk show host eager to suddenly be the mom she never was. There’s also a most precarious love interest (Colin Firth), a deeply neurotic single dad blessed with a wicked temper and lack of tact.

It’s all a bit much for one movie, though Hunt and her colleagues juggle reasonably well. There’s something admirable, if not especially inspired, about how drab it all is, and Hunt is anything but glamorized playing this very dowdy Jewess in shapeless skirts and sensible shoes. There are ill-chosen detours, especially when the characters begin discussing faith, and the odd eccentricity, such as casting Salman Rushdie as an OB-GYN. But Then She Found Me isn’t really meant to be all that tidy or crisp, working best when rigorously exploiting its rawness, exploring messy emotions, difficult choices, disappointments and frustrations, all of which are evoked most effectively in the scenes between Hunt and the equally talented Firth, which are often funny, plausibly crazy and touching.


Paul Matwychuk said...

Hey, JB.

It's interesting to see how a television non-watcher like yourself has an entirely different impression of Helen Hunt from people who watched her year after year on the sitcom MAD ABOUT YOU. (Yes, I watched a lot of MAD ABOUT YOU. I was a white guy with a live-in girlfriend... MAD ABOUT YOU was mandatory viewing. Plus, it usually was on between FRASIER and SEINFELD.)

On that show, Hunt's persona was as the quintessential neurotic New York yuppie... buzzing with Starbucks caffeine, dithering anxiously about her career choices. She wasn't exactly the most *likeable* comedienne around, but the show's writers did a decent job of playing to her strengths. She even made Paul Reiser seem appealing.

So it's kind of a mystery to me how her screen persona became so drab. It's as if Jennifer Aniston decided to only make movies like THE GOOD GIRL.

I also have to question your statement that the movie's drabness is "kind of admirable." I haven't seen the film, but I wonder if you're indulging in a little reverse snobbery here--where you're praising a movie (a romantic dramedy, no less!) for *not* being fun or entertaining.

JB said...

Hmmm... Well, so much for sweeping generalizations about Helen Hunt! I did actually see MAD ABOUT YOU once or twice. I remember her in jogging pants. She seemed so deeply inoffensive. And she looked disturbingly appealing in jogging pants...

Re: the admirable drabness. I think my tongue was so far in my cheek I swallowed it. I do like the fact that Hunt made herself look more like a normal person in the movie, but I found the drabness admirable in the way you find it admirable when someone REALLY vacuumed the couch well. And goddamn her outfits her ugly! What I did -do- admire is how Hunt's lack of attention to style or allure seemed to have focused her more on emotional truths, which were, in the best moments, quite entertaining.

None of this is to urge you to run out and see the movie. It's really not that great. But if I ran into Helen Hunt on the street I would totally give her a high-5.