Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Little substance, Less Taste

She's So Lovely tries to be offbeat, but is just off. Paperback Romance doesn't every try very much.

By Hadley Hury

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  Gena Rowlands, the fineactor, and widow of the late writer-director John Cassavetes, hasa small cameo scene in her son Nick Cassavetes' She's SoLovely. It's always a pleasure to see Rowlands -- one of ourmost likeable screen presences and notoriously underutilized --but in this contrived and queasy mix of melodrama, black comedy,and art-house pretensions, the classy sexagenarian's briefappearance will only have the unintended and very unfortunateeffect of reminding many viewers of better days or prompting themto wonder what might have been. The young Cassavetes fashionedShe's So Lovely from a short story written by his father some20 years ago, and it would be a moot, not to mention unfair,point to consider how the late director himself would havebrought his material to the screen -- except for the fact thatthis project wears its homage on its sleeve. Audiences familiarwith John Cassavetes' groundbreaking independent films of thelate 1950s through the mid-'70s -- some of the best of which,such as A Woman Under the Influence, featured Rowlands --will be hard-pressed not to draw unfavorable parallels.

The lead performances are not to blame.Sean Penn plays Eddie, lost boy and loose cannon whose only footup on even the lowest rung of socialization and functionaladulthood is his love for a similarly simple and volatilewaif-of-the-streets, Maureen, played by Sean's wife, Robin WrightPenn. Halfway through the 95-minute movie, Eddie makes the step(it's even shorter than we'd been led to think, and handled -- asare many of the film's plot twists -- with a thumping lack ofcredibility) to a complete psychotic breakdown, and isinstitutionalized for 10 years. Here Penn goes to the end of theroad he entered so memorably with his fine portrayal of thecondemned killer in Dead Man Walking; his Eddie is anapotheosis of the maladjusted, uneducated misfit whosewoundedness explodes in rage and violence. It's a showyperformance and all the more impressive for only occasionallygiving in to self-conscious grandstanding. Robin Penn, also anactor of some power -- whose strong-boned blondness distinctlyrecalls the younger Rowlands and whose career to date seemssimilarly, frustratingly meager -- does what she can to build asympathetic, or at least believable, character of theunderscripted Maureen. But when the movie jumps ahead a decadeand Eddie is released, and we discover Maureen, now cleaned-up,better adjusted, and living in suburbia, married to a buildingcontractor named Joey (John Travolta), and the mother of threeyoung daughters, the actor is left stranded with a trumped-upfilm finish that may have seemed very high in concept butprovides a very low character-development arc or anythingapproaching dramatic credibility.

Will Eddie and Maureen destroy whatseems to be a normal, if somewhat tenuous, family by running offtogether? Since all that the film has shown us is the pair'sdangerous irresponsibility and tawdry self-indulgence, we canguess. Will the viewer care? Probably not much, since we prettymuch feel by this point that no one should have to put up withthese two except each other. Cassavetes' careless use of Eddie'sclinical emotional illness as an almost glancing plot device isindicative of She's So Lovely's misbegotten ambition toframe a noirish tale of unappealing outcasts with hip-coolcomedy. But it is the incidental treatment of the children thatis the true nadir of the project. That the children are indeedincidental to Maureen and Eddie, though deplorable, is notunexpected since they are so apparently self-absorbed. But it isthe film itself that seems to forget the three young girls arethere. There's a bit of unsatisfying and dramatically strainedattention given to their plight, but, by and large, the impact ofthe story's final scenes seems to have been completely lost onyoung Cassavetes. As the children look on uncomprehendingly --and most of the audience looks on with more than a little disgustat these painful, almost macabre scenes -- She's So Lovelycomes to a characteristically dissonant ending in which whimsicalsoundtrack music and wry character reactions try to signal thatthese proceedings are to be taken all in good fun. But just asthe lack of fleshed-out emotional conflict robs the film of itsaspirations toward kitchen-sink pathos, so the lack ofdirectorial viewpoint and tone make a sour, disingenuous mess ofits would-be dark comedy.

It may have taken two awards at theCannes Film Festival (where pretension reigns even more securelythan it does at the Oscars), but She's So Lovely isart-house grittiness sans true grit.

ABOUT THE ONLY intriguing aspect of theAustralian import Paperback Romance is why it didn't gostraight to video. Made three years ago, it seems a mystery whyit should be released now -- even as marginally as it is. It's atepid romantic comedy that occasionally strains for seriousness,the sort of movie which you have utterly forgotten by the timeyou reach the parking lot. (Several viewers at a recent showingdidn't wait long enough to forget it; they got up and left early,probably in search of some redeeming "better half" ofsome other movie down the multiplex hall.)

Anthony LaPaglia, an interesting actor,is fairly well wasted in his lead role as a jewel dealer whofalls for a bodice-ripper romance writer, played by Gia Carides.The audaciously banal plot involves the fact that Carides'character wears a leg brace and doesn't want that to ruin her onechance for happiness. A freak accident allows her to hide herreal affliction in a leg cast under the guise of a skiingaccident. (It says everything you need to know about the level ofendeavor here to realize that this was done better several yearsback -- by Kristy McNichol, no less.)

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