Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Under the Influence

Director's son revives half-baked script

By Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, and Jim Ridley

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  Every writer knows the dilemma: You take a good story premise--maybe even just a scene--and you work around your nugget to flesh out a complete piece. Then you finish, and it becomes painfully evident that your "flesh-out" is superior to your original idea; indeed, the work as a whole would be stronger if you excised your source of inspiration. Are you strong enough to kill your baby, or are you going to keep working, in hopes that you find a way to keep your story intact?

The film She's So Lovely plays like the work of a writer trying to make the best of just such a bad situation. The script was written by legendary independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, who made his reputation on histrionic, improvisatory dramas about tough guys and their crazy women. After John's death, his son Nick got a call from actor Sean Penn, who encouraged the younger Cassavetes to revive the project. Penn also roped in some top actors--including himself, his wife Robin Wright Penn, Harry Dean Stanton, James Gandolfini, and John Travolta.

At first glance, it's easy to see the attraction of the material. Robin Wright Penn has a juicy role as a strung-out, pregnant loser named Maureen, in love with her manic, grifter husband Eddie (Sean Penn). When Eddie disappears for three days, Maureen has a drunken, violent sexual encounter with their neighbor across the hall (Gandolfini). Afraid that Eddie will do something rash if he finds out, she tries to lie her way around the trouble; but Eddie quickly gets wise, and he goes on a rampage that lands him in an institution for 10 years.

Flash-forward a decade. Maureen has divorced Eddie and married a successful construction-business owner named Joey (Travolta), with the understanding that she's just biding time until Eddie is released. The centerpiece of the film is a dinner party at the nice, suburban home of Maureen, Joey, and their three daughters. Expecting Maureen to leave with him, Eddie shows up with his old drinking buddy Shorty (Stanton). But as it turns out, she has changed in his absence, and the pull of her children may be too strong even for a love like Eddie's.

My gut feeling is that John Cassavetes started with the idea of the dinner party, and seeing nowhere to go with this basically irresolvable conflict, he worked his way backward to develop the story of Mo and Eddie. The first hour of the film covers two breathless days in their down-and-out lives, and it's filled with romance, pathos, and heartbreaking tragedy. When the film skips ahead to the dinner party, the sudden shift in tone to zany comedy is jarring; though the finale is often very funny, the film as a whole loses its impact and becomes irrelevant. Matters aren't helped by the story's conclusion, which seems to be there only because the movie needs some kind of ending.

Despite the inconsistencies in the script, She's So Lovely is worth seeing, thanks to the assured direction by Cassavetes and the stellar ensemble acting. With the recent deaths of Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum, I've been watching a lot of their old films and thinking about what makes a great movie actor--namely, that they can hold your attention even in a piece of studio fluff. She's So Lovely isn't quite fluff, but it certainly isn't a work of any great importance either. Ultimately, it's a clinic on screen acting led by a handful of masters. Robin Wright Penn's transformation from a hopped-up, screechy barfly to a hollow, soulsick suburban mother is breathtaking; Travolta's jittery, threatened family man elicits both sympathy and big laughs.

At the center Robin Wright Penn and Sean Penn, giving us a reason to watch She's So Lovely

But the movie belongs to Sean Penn, who blows through the first part of the movie like a strong wind, knocking down scenery and mussing his costars' hair. The farcical construct of the film's ending is too confining for Penn and his character, but the actor knows what's coming, and he knows that any tension in the denouement has to come from the audience's memory of Mo and Eddie in their glory days.

To that end, he creates a smalltime hood so charming and so lively that we don't realize until it's too late that he's also quite out of his mind. When the revelation comes, it's devastating, because we've just begun to see Eddie through his wife's eyes. During a virtuoso scene at a dance hall, we watch him gracefully connive his way into free admission and a $20 loan from the ticket-taker, and then we see him twirl around the dance floor, laughing and ogling Maureen. The rest of the film may seem awkward, confusing, and underwhelming, but when Penn is dancing with his wife, you understand what John Cassavetes had in mind.--Noel Murray

Toro! Toro! Toro!

Few movies this summer have had a plot as ordinary, writing as clichd, and characters as forgettable as Excess Baggage. Tri-Star Pictures acknowledged as much when they neglected to schedule advance screenings for critics. So why did I spend half the movie with an uncontrollable idiot grin plastered on my face? Because of Benicio Del Toro, the year's most unlikely romantic lead, who turns this straight-to-video fodder into a quirkfest worthy of cult status. Connoisseurs of acting have treasured every second of Del Toro's appearances in The Funeral, Basquiat, and The Usual Suspects; now we get a whole movie's worth, and he doesn't disappoint.

Neither does Alicia Silverstone, who stars as poor little rich girl Emily T. Hope (and who, as executive producer, made the decision to cast Del Toro). Nor does Christopher Walken as her protector, Uncle Ray. It's a shame the movie around them is such a shambles. Emily's magnate father pays no attention to her, so she fakes her own kidnapping, which goes awry when Vincent (Del Toro) steals her Beemer. Vincent owes the chief of the car-theft ring (Harry Connick Jr.) $200 grand, Uncle Ray is about to blow his cover, and Emily won't cooperate. It's such a typical romantic caper plot that we're going to see it again soon in A Life Less Ordinary. Likewise, there's nothing imaginative about the script by Max D. Adams or the direction by Marco Brambilla. The supposedly comic fights look like they were filmed by someone who had heard about slapstick but had never actually seen any.

Apparently, all the imagination went into the casting. Silverstone can still charm even with no material, and she fearlessly flouts every convention of hostagedom. Walken treats us to a sampling of his legendary talents, from quiet menace to full-throated song. And Del Toro is a true original; he underplays so deeply that when Silverstone kicks him in the groin, he barely moves. With his bizarre accent and mumbling delivery, he's only marginally understandable, and every few minutes he makes an unmotivated gesture. When Del Toro and Walken share the screen, fitful phrasings, non sequiturs, and unthinkable line readings reach a fever pitch. For those who love fine acting of the midnight-movie school, it's pure ecstasy.

If anyone has the guts to cast Del Toro in a leading role after this movie sinks into box-office oblivion, I'll be surprised. But I'm thinking of sending Alicia Silverstone a personal thank-you note for casting him this time. She's made one critic very, very happy.--Donna Bowman

The beaver's tale

It would have been easy for the makers of the big-screen Leave It to Beaver to poke fun at the square conventions of the original series--to skewer the suburbs, the '50s, and the innocence of childhood. Thankfully, director Andy Cadiff and screenwriters Brian Levant and Lon Diamond head down a different path. Judging correctly that moviegoers are weary of the cynical, Brady Bunch Movie-style updating of nostalgic favorites, the filmmakers play up the aspects of the TV show that were responsible for its success--namely, the deadpan dialogue of kids trying to stay out of trouble.

As the film opens, Beaver Cleaver (Cameron Finley) is hatching a scheme to ensure a new bicycle for his birthday. At the encouragement of his brother Wally (Adam Zolotin) and Wally's friend Eddie Haskell (Erik von Detten), the Beav goes out for the football team, with the idea that becoming a jock will impress his father. Soon, though, Beaver's new bike is stolen, he has quit the football team, and he's trying like heck to hide his failures from Dad (Christopher McDonald). Meanwhile, Wally and Eddie are feuding over a girl who thinks the former is dreamy and the latter is a creep.

The episodic story is sweet, with the snappy pace of a sitcom. Besides an innate blandness, the only real problem with the movie is one lingering question: Why? What's this movie's raison d'être? As mentioned, the filmmakers aren't copping an attitude about this material, although Ward's tendency to holler at the boys is blamed on his relationship with his own father. They're also not merely recreating the show. The story is set in the '90s, with knowing bows to Nintendo, Blockbuster, and Nike. In fact, other than June's clothes, the characters' names, Eddie's smugness, and the fact that Beaver says "junk" a lot, the movie makes few references to its TV origins--it could just as easily have been titled Theodore's Football Adventure.

That it's called Leave It to Beaver instead says a lot about the culture we live in. The 1950s may not really have been a simpler time, but at least there were fewer choices as far as entertainment was concerned. Children of the '50s through the '70s had shared experiences--everyone read the same comic books, got excited about the same major sporting events, saw matinees on the same two or three movie screens in town, and watched the same few TV channels. Now there are six different Spider-Man titles on the magazine racks, and the citizens of Nashville ignore their NFL franchise to root for arena football.

In an era of specialization, marketers need presold properties more than ever. If you want to know why June's still vacuuming in her party dress in 1997, there's your answer. What's encouraging about Leave It to Beaver, though, is that the filmmakers didn't just buy the rights to the name. They bought the feeling as well. The best character in the movie may be the town it's set in--a sunny neighborhood with a soda shop, a town square, and an annual fair. It's the kind of place where the residents would be likely to enjoy a slight, charming entertainment like Leave It to Beaver.--Noel Murray

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