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"Living Out Loud" turns up the volume

By Ray Pride

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  The sea of Hollywood studio output is awash with flaccid sea monsters--bulky, bloated specimens of an archaic physiognomy - plot, story, structure and nothing but.

Executives deride a movie that pauses, that takes in the small gestures or privileged moments of someone other than a serial killer or a cackling sociopath or a mother with a social issue for a child or a heartstruck billionaire. Most other kinds of movie are seen as "soft," meaning, simply, "too difficult to market on my watch." And so we get push-button animatronics of the sea-monster of character arcs and story points and "beats," replicated again and again, a distant carbon of human behavior. If a filmmaker doesn't want to be the man behind the curtain of a film like "Armageddon," "Soldier" or "Peacemaker," there are dozens who do.

Richard LaGravenese's "Living Out Loud" is an oddity and, a delight, and it must be conceded, a protected species. It bears the patronage of New Line, the youngest and most adventurous of modern studios; a producer, Stacy Sher, who worked for the company that put LaGravenese's "The Fisher King" (and his career) into orbit; co-producer and star Danny DeVito, who takes keen advantage of the rare chance for him to play a complicated character; and, of course, LaGravenese's own writing career, which incudes "The Ref," "Bridges of Madison County," "The Horse Whisperer" and "Beloved." With all that clout behind him, he was able to direct this smart, delicious, unconventional romance filled with tentative gestures and few lasting solutions. (Dreams lead to places you never imagined, even in those dreams.)

Holly Hunter is magnificent in the central role, giving a tactile, forceful performance as Judith, the wife of a wealthy doctor (Martin Donovan) who left her for a younger woman. Now she only scrapes by despite her Fifth Avenue address. Her daily fantasies are mostly mutterings, at first, but she discovers that there is a world beyond her frustrations. She meets Pat (DeVito), a lonely schemer who runs the elevator in her building, and befriends a nightclub singer (Queen Latifah, effortlessly regal) whose music comforts her. At the nightclub one night, a stranger kisses Judith, and the results have the power of fact, but we never truly know whether Judith is an "Unmarried Woman" for the nineties, or as much a fantasist as the characters in "The Fisher King."

One of LaGravenese's gifts as a first-time director is his avoidance of easy bathos, although there is both pain and exhilaration in the story. "Sentimentality is when it's dishonest, when you're trying to manipulate an emotion out of somebody, you're trying to make somebody feel something," the 38-year-old writer says. "If you're honest, simply presenting an experience that really happened or that you really feel - and I don't mean it in a self-indulgent way - but that you know is a true experience or a true feeling, I somehow think it translates to an audience not as precious or sentimental but as something that is genuine. And humor helps a great deal, to undercut things. People sometimes tend to ignore the real elements of what's happening in a scene just to sort of get their precious moment across."

There's a choreographed set piece that could be dubbed "the Sapphic dance interlude," where Judith, in a women's dance club, fantasizes herself at the center of a dance number. Some filmmakers might have taken it farther for titillation, but for LaGravenese, it's a payoff for Judith's growing confidence, the private fantasies she's been allowed. "For me, the tendency is always to write everything, make everything a monologue. I made a concerted effort to use images," he says. "So when she starts out lip-synching alone in her apartment [early on], that becomes part of the world. That dance said what I wanted to say. It evolved as images in my head that I would write down. Every time I would go to the gym, I would have my headphones on the treadmill and I would hear that Brownstone song ["If You Love Me"] and I would choreograph this scene in my head over and over and over. So as the script was writing itself, this transitional scene for her was already worked out."

Beyond thinking in imagery, LaGravenese also longs for a plot. "Yeah, I'd love a plot. For me, it's my weakness as a writer, I want to learn more about plot. I get very attached to theme and character, which can get precious. I'd like to learn more about plot. [Veteran screenwriter] Alvin Sargent has this great quote, when he dies, his gravestone's going to say, 'At last, a plot!' And [my friend] Paul Thomas Anderson and I are always kidding ourselves, 'I swear to God, the next time I write a script, it's going to have a story!'"

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