Friday, June 6, 2008

Film Review: Then She Found Me

Helen Hunt’s Then She Found Me is a modest, innocuous movie; indeed, it has already been formatted to fit your TV screen. This really is not such a terrible criticism: there is plenty on television that is worth watching, and some of it is even better than what comes out in theaters. But it is, for the most part, scaled differently than film, and designed to meet audiences in their family rooms; it tends to be polite, even deferential, like any houseguest. Then She Found Me has been conceived with this same sense of decorum, and what we notice as we watch is that it makes few demands on us, other than our time. Its scenes are short, rhythmic, and conservatively choreographed, as if to keep from confusing us; it is more interested in action than in introspection, in the spectacle of crisis than in its traumas and resolutions; it is also heavily self-mediated. The film is ostensibly about faith, but we come away distrusting anything not verified on a screen. It is a movie that not only meets us where we live but tells us what a great place we’ve got.

Helen Hunt, who directed—from a screenplay that she co-wrote, and re-co-wrote for about ten years, based on Elinor Lipman’s debut novel—stars as April Epner, a 39-year old teacher jilted by her neotenic husband, Ben, played by Matthew Broderick. Imagine if Ferris Bueller had not been impossibly precocious and supremely confident—in other words, if he had been anything like an actual teenager—and you might picture someone like Ben; at thirty-something, he’s much more adolescent than Bueller ever was. He is, anyway, a poor match for April, who is not only ready for marriage but desperate to have a child. Her story—she was given up for adoption when she was a baby and was raised, albeit lovingly, by the Epners—must explain some of her avidity; the rest is genetic, or instinctive. A weaker woman might, in these same circumstances, question the whole idea of motherhood, but April’s conviction is unshakable, even axiomatic: she really, really wants to have a baby. Does her fierce desire come from an impulse to atone for her birth-mother’s sin, or to redeem her? Is it a form of vengeance? Then She Found Me doesn’t address these thorny questions; what’s worse is that it doesn’t even acknowledge their legitimacy. It reflexively ridicules questions about April’s maternal delinquency, but this—the question of her growth—strikes me as the movie’s real penumbra. Instead we get a primer on faith. Indeed, the movie’s philosophical curiosity begins and ends, it seems, as the movie itself begins and ends: with a “Jewish story” (we are told) about a boy on the stairs and the father who tells him to jump. If the story is meant to consider whether God’s unconditional gift is a safety net or our own resilience, the movie itself seems to have no trouble concluding, feebly, that God is actually just “difficult.” We get it: all parents are the same, complex and unknowable. This is very nice to believe but its facileness—or its sophistry: we don’t understand God, therefore God is difficult—is symptomatic of the entire movie.

The problem with Then She Found Me is of conviction: it doesn’t know what it is, or it doesn’t believe it is what it says it is. Lacking faith in its own intentions, it’s either naïve or calculating. It’s not only about April’s Pentateuchal long-suffering; it’s also about her nascent romantic relationship with Frank (Colin Firth), the divorced father of one of her students; and Bernice Graves (Bette Midler), her birth-mother and a morning TV talk show host, who decides, for no discernible reason, to contact her. Then She Found Me is an issue movie, a romantic comedy, and an indie drama (Complete with zany mother!) but none of it coheres, or sticks with us. Frank’s courtship is charming and rumpled in the way that only Colin Firth can make it, but it’s also pretty dull—or would be, if April didn’t routinely go out of her way, and out of character, I think, to make him look foolish. It’s a plot sustained willfully and complicated gratuitously. Too uncomplicated, on the other hand, is Bernice Graves, her name shortened and reduced from the book’s more literary and inauspicious “Graverman” and her character, we imagine, purged similarly. Bernice lies to April with a pathological eagerness, but the movie never confirms what we sense: that, her own life a catalogue of near-successes and half-accomplishments, she lies to reinvent herself. It appears that her life really is, as April puts it, “fabulous”; it needs no justification or biographical revisionism. We want Bernice to be as duplicitous and disingenuous as she seems to be—the latest in an enduring literary tradition of gleefully treacherous parent-figures—but it turns out that she’s not so awfully bad. Then She Found Me, like Firth’s Frank when he’s seized by shame or fury, turns and walks away when it should boil over.

But confrontation is not really in Helen Hunt’s repertoire. Perhaps flummoxed by the weird dynamics and utter absence of melody in two early scenes of rupture and reconciliation—Ben’s explanation that he wants a separation is a single, pallid shot, and, later, Bernice’s supplication for April’s forgiveness is played, clumsily, for laughs—Hunt cops out and has what ought to be the film’s two most powerful revelations shown on a screen. The first, a picture of a fetus on a sonogram, gives credence to the second, Bernice confessing a secret on her TV show. It’s not even live: April rewinds the videotape again and again as if to saturate herself with it, which in this movie passes for dramatic action. In its blatant self-justification, this scene reads like one of Bernice’s own tall tales. Really, who insists these days that something is true because she saw it on TV? But Then She Found Me, as though afraid of the rough and unruly lives that people muddle through, with or without a difficult God, reduces its characters, its conflicts, and its own scope, to the size of a small screen. Forget that pesky still and soft voice: only TV has the answers.

(Then She Found Me may still be in theaters somewhere. But you may only be able to catch it on TV, where it will strike you as being several rungs above whatever show preceded it and whatever show comes after.)

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