Saturday, May 10, 2008
Helen Hunt, who had directed 8 episodes of Mad About You , wears many hats on Then She Found Me. She not only makes her directing debut but co-writes, produces and stars. The film, based on Elinor Lipman's novel, has Hunt playing April Epner, a 39-year-old New York schoolteacher whose life is about to unravel. April wants to have a baby. In fact, she's so desperate that on the day her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) decides to leave her she has sex with him on their kitchen floor. He leaves anyway. Then her adoptive mom dies, her real mother Bernice (Bette Midler) finds her, her estranged husband wants to see her just as she's found someone new (Colin Firth), and she's pregnant.
Bette Midler and Helen Hunt in Then She Found Me (THINKFilm)
Hunt co-wrote the screenplay with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin, and it's exactly the kind of film you might imagine from the former star of TV's Mad About You . It's set in New York, focuses on relationships, involves Jewish family members, and presents us with humorously flawed characters. This is a film that packs no surprises. It's pleasant enough entertainment with occasional highlights by Firth as an awkward but appealing rebound lover. But the script cruises in low gear and never accelerates to really show what those involved could do. There are no major missteps, but rather a general thinness to the material, as if it were a first draft waiting for further refinement and added detail.
For a story so centered on character, a number of the characters fail to play out convincingly. April's husband is described as childish but as someone that somehow charms April into doing things she doesn't want to do. But we never see him in an appealing mode to make us believe that she would have ever loved him or that she would ever be so under his spell. Even April fails to make us buy into her actions when, after thinking Frank - her new love interest -- is the perfect guy for her, she shows a momentary relapse for Ben. And Bernice, who has a TV talk show, tells lies that don't make sense especially since she could be so easily caught in regards to the one big lie she tells to April. Only Frank comes across as believable in his inconsistencies, which at least seem to stem organically from his character's personality and emotional make up.
Hunt displays the most skill in scenes that have no dialogue and just show characters connecting for a moment. There's a silent scene between Bernice and April as Bernice washes her daughter's hair; or April and Frank cuddling up in the room with his kids; or April and Franks little daughter enjoying a spontaneous gift exchange. In these tender, quiet moments, there's more intimacy and emotion than the film as a whole ever generates.
For some reason I have never been able to warm up to Hunt on the big screen. I liked her on Mad About You but in her feature films, even her Oscar-winning turn in As Good as It Gets , she always feels somewhat strained and tense in her performances as if she's never at ease in the skins of the characters she has played on the big screen. Broderick barely has any scenes and is never able to define his character for us in any of them. Midler seems a bit toned down -- for Midler, that is. But at least she brings some spunk and vivacity to April's subdued life. As I alluded to earlier, the only performance that stands out is Firth's. As Frank he's an odd mix. He seems ill suited to single parenthood (his wife is traveling the globe creating art with her new lover). He is clumsy as a romantic suitor. He takes strange walkabouts when he's mad. And yet he has a knack for saying, in the most unassuming and direct manner, just what April needs to hear. Firth gives Frank a nice tension between his slacker acceptance of all that has gone wrong in his life, and his anxiety over wanting something more.
Helen Hunt and Colin Firth in Then She Found Me (THINKFilm)
Then She Found Me (rated R for language and some sexual content) is a commendable but not very exciting feature-directing debut by actress Helen Hunt. Although she wields most of the creative power on the film she doesn't turn this into a vanity project. She doesn't endow the film with any flair or distinctive personality but she doesn't get in the way of the story. The film feels very safe and carefully cultivated, and visually it has the evenly lit and center-framed look of a TV show. Maybe next time she can find a project that ignites a more visible passion in filmmaking.
Companion viewing: Baby Mama, Waitress, The Miracle of Morgan Creek