The Man Who Viewed Too Much
8 September 1997

She's So Lovely

Directed by Nick Cassavetes
Written by John Cassavetes
Rating: **

G.I. Jane

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra
Rating: ** ½


Directed by Bill Duke
Written by Chris Brancato
Rating: **

Family Name

Directed by Macky Alston
Rating: ** ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

In order to properly review She's So Lovely, a rather high-profile "independent film" starring Sean Penn, his wife Robin Wright Penn, and John Travolta, I'll need to spend some time discussing both the film's director and its screenwriter. This presents a minor logistical problem, however, in that both of these gentlemen are named Cassavetes; the movie was written by legendary maverick John Cassavetes, who died in 1989, and was directed by his son, Nick Cassavetes. I don't feel comfortable referring to them as 'John' and 'Nick,' as if they both used to swing by my house for the occasional barbecue, and appending 'Sr.' and 'Jr.' to their surname isnt a satisfying solution, either -- it sounds too formal and stuffy. Hereafter, therefore, I'll use their initials: 'JC' and 'NC' -- which might also, in this context, reasonably stand for 'Jesus Christ' and 'nolo contendere.' JC, after all, is widely regarded as independent film's savior, and as for NC's skill behind the lens...well, we're talking no contest here.

The movie's subject is l'amour fou, and the various ways in which it both heals and destroys, with emphasis on the latter. Penn and Wright Penn, who are now married in real life (has Sean forgotten Shanghai Surprise already?), play a young married couple, Eddie and Mo. They are, to put it mildly, crazy in love. So crazy, in fact, that when Mo is beaten and apparently raped by a neighbor (James Gandolfini, in what is easily the film's best performance, Penn's Best Actor award at Cannes notwithstanding), Eddie quite literally goes insane, shooting an EMS worker dispatched to subdue him and winding up in an asylum, where he spends the following ten years. When he's released and sets off to resume his life, already in progress, he learns that Mo divorced him while he was on the inside and married a fellow named Joey (Travolta), with whom she now has two daughters. (There's also a nine-year-old girl in the family, whose father is Eddie himself.) Mo is stable and relatively happy with Joey, but she's also well aware that her overpowering desire for Eddie hasn't diminished one iota over the past decade, and it's uncertain whether even her love for her children will stop her from walking out the door and into the still-addled Eddie's arms.

The onscreen writing credit for She's So Lovely states simply "Written by John Cassavetes." Miramax's marketing department, however, has altered this slightly in its promotional materials: the film's trailer and newspaper ads cheerfully declare that it's "a film by Nick Cassavetes, from a fable by John Cassavetes." This appellation baffled me for a while, since JC isn't exactly Aesop, but now that I've seen the film, I think I understand what Miramax is trying to do. Calling She's So Lovely a fable -- which it isn't, incidentally, by any definition of the word -- is their savvy way of preparing audiences for a movie that makes no sense. If a disgruntled viewer leaves the theater complaining, for example, that Eddie is alternately lucid or wacko depending on the needs of the script at that particular moment, and that real people don't lurch in and out of sanity at a moment's notice, maybe one of his or her companions will counter with "but it's not supposed to be realistic. It's a fable. It said so in the paper." "Oh, well, okay then," our hypothetical critic might grudgingly reply. Better still, the criticism might not even occur to people who have entered the theater ready to see a "fable," just as audiences are willing to accept virtually any degree of coincidence or improbability if it's preceded by the words "based on a true story" (as the Coens recently discovered).

Well, why couldn't She's So Lovely be a fable? Or, to put it another way, is it fair of me to carp merely because the plot is hideously contrived? Before I answer that question (sneak preview: Yes), allow me to offer a few other examples of the degree of absurd contrivance that I'm talking about:

(1) Mo loves Eddie with every fiber of her being, yet she never once visits him in the asylum after the day of his arrest, even before (we presume) she meets Joey. Why not? Well, because there's no story otherwise; if she'd behaved in a manner consistent with her feelings for Eddie, she'd never have gotten involved with Joey in the first place, no matter for how long she thought Eddie might be incarcerated.

(2) The asylum releases Eddie after ten years even though he's blissfully unaware that a decade has passed. He thinks he's been inside for three months -- and what's more, the counselor who interviews him at the asylum (Gena Rowlands, widow to JC and mother of NC) knows that he's deluded in this respect. So he's been, exactly? Remember, it's not a jail sentence (that would have made more sense, frankly).

(3) Mo tells Joey, in no uncertain terms, that she doesn't want to see Eddie, because she still loves Eddie more than she loves Joey. Furious, Joey heads for Eddie's new digs on the day of his release, in part to introduce him to the daughter he's never met, but primarily to warn him to keep the hell away from Mo. At the end of their brief conversation, however, he impulsively invites Eddie to have dinner at his house that night. Why? Out of arrogance, one supposes -- "as if this pathetic clown could steal my wife from me" -- but while I can justify the moment intellectually after the fact, it seemed utterly ludicrous when it was happening in front of me. Onscreen, the subtext seemed to me to be: "Say, why don't you come over for dinner tonight, because I just now remembered that if you don't, the movie ends rather anticlimactically right here." Admittedly, the fault may lie in Travolta's performance rather than JC's script, but I don't think so; we've barely met Joey when this scene takes place, so I find it difficult to imagine that any actor could have demonstrated the necessary hubris without a bit more help in the dialogue department.

There's more, but that'll do. The point is, She's So Lovely doesn't make a whole lotta sense. But, to get back to the question that you probably thought that I'd forgotten by now, is that really such a liability? Yep. The reason why involves the difference between how JC directed his own scripts and how NC has directed this one -- a difference vast enough to conclusively disprove, if such a thing were still necessary, Lamarck's 19th-century theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Whatever your opinion of JC's oeuvre -- and after seeing four of his most celebrated films, I'm still not convinced that he was the unprecedented genius that some claim, though the man clearly had talent -- there's no doubt whatsoever that it truly was independent...not in the sense that any old movie released by Miramax or Fox Searchlight or Fine Line is technically "independent," but fundamentally, in both conception and execution. Nobody could possibly mistake any of JC's movies for a Hollywood production; even Minnie and Moskowitz, which was a Hollywood production, continually and (I would argue) antagonistically subverts the narrative and aesthetic conventions of studio pictures. (To be fair, it was released in 1971, during a singular and very brief period of innovation in Hollywood, and so wasn't nearly as atypical as it would have been ten years earlier or ten years later.)

In short, JC had a style -- a signature, as the Nouvelle Vague once said -- and his screenplays were written with his particular mise-en-scène in mind. The look of his films was fairly consistent, and it did not include, for example, key lighting, careful attention to the horizontal axis, and endless shot/reverse-shot compositions. NC, on the other hand, has so far demonstrated a level of craftsmanship equivalent to, say, what you might see in the latest Frank Oz or Ron Howard movie. This is fine if you happen to be, say, Frank Oz, or Ron Howard, and you're attracted to simple, accessible scripts like those for What About Bob? or Apollo 13. If you're directing a movie written by JC, however, generic studio competence is not merely the wrong approach -- it's the worst possible approach. Transplant JC's gutter-poetic, hyperbolic characters and dead-end narratives into the brightly lit world of the backlot, and they seem ludicrous, pretentious, arrhythmic. (Imagine Jerry Maguire and a few of his movie's subplots transplanted into Eraserhead or Laws of Gravity -- this is the inverse.) She's So Lovely sports a typically unresolved JC finale -- the film ends at what would be the conclusion of the first act of a Hollywood film -- and while I can imagine, if I squint very hard, how it might have been affecting and poignant in JC's hands (assuming that he'd shot the entire movie in a very different manner), here it seems affected and pointless, as if NC had run out of money three-quarters of the way through the shoot and decided to simply omit the final two reels. The same is true of the various implausibilities and contrivances detailed above: it's possible that a grittier, tougher, less glossy touch might have boosted the entire picture onto another artistic plateau, upon which they'd seem irrelevant or even necessary. Instead, their collective weight sinks it.

I didn't care much for NC's first appropriation of his parents' work, last year's Unhook the Stars, either; it starred Rowlands and, though not explicitly based upon a JC script, was obviously heavily influenced by his specter. My guess is that NC simply isn't a filmmaker, but I'm willing to be proven wrong. Maybe a project that doesn't involve either of his folks might be a good choice for his third attempt. One more strike, however, and I'm going to assume that the movie-talent gene in this family must be recessive.

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I had not planned to see G.I. Jane. In fact, if you had presented me, back in January, with a list of every 1997 release, and asked me to rank them, sight unseen, from Most Anticipated to Least Anticipated, I'd've placed G.I. Jane only a notch or two above such potentially exciting fare as Leave it to Beaver and Beverly Hills Ninja, and that only because director Ridley Scott occasionally, apparently by accident, makes a first-rate film. I don't generally like macho military movies; I don't generally like Demi Moore; and the thought of Moore as the star of a macho military movie confirmed that my gag reflex is still quite functional. Still, G.I. Jane received more than a few positive reviews, including a rave from the Village Voice's ardently feminist Amy Taubin, so when the opportunity arose to see it for free, I was too curious to decline. And damned if it isn't my guiltiest almost-pleasure of the year.

I should stress at the outset, however, that my semi-enjoyment had nothing whatsoever to do with feminism. Ideologically, this is a repugnant film; I can see why Taubin responded to its sister-doin'-it-for-herself masochism, I suppose, but I can't quite fathom why she wasn't bothered by the fact that aspiring Navy SEAL Jordan O'Neil earns the respect of her peers and superiors only by gradually transforming herself into a brother. The brutal, sadistic, rigidly conformist military ethos is never questioned for a moment; nobody ever suggests that maybejustmaybe the apparent incompatibility of men and women in the armed forces has something to do with the fact that the men are systematically trained to be sexist assholes. Instead, O'Neil must embrace the SEALs' ruthless, testosterone-soaked attitude; a scene in which she snarls "suck my dick!" at the Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen) during a training exercise, and then proceeds to kick the living shit out of him, is the film's true climax, even though there are still 30-45 minutes of screen time left. Her fellow trainees, who have previously regarded her at best with suspicion and more commonly with hatred and/or contempt, now act as surrogate audience members, wildly cheering and applauding. This O'Neil chick has demonstrated that she, too, can look upon other members of her own species as inhuman, so, heck, she must be okay. (Please don't bother sending me impassioned messages explaining why soldiers must necessarily be mindless killing machines. You'll be wasting your time and energy.)

So what's to enjoy, for a card-carrying liberal pacifist like myself? That's why I feel guilty: G.I. Jane may be obnoxious, but that doesn't make it ineffective. Scott is clearly incapable of distinguishing a good script from a bad one -- this is the guy who went directly from Thelma & Louise to 1492: Conquest of Paradise, you'll recall -- but he knows how to use a movie camera, and G.I. Jane's training sequences, which comprise a hefty percentage of the film's running time, are both visually stunning and emotionally grueling. SEAL candidates are required to demonstrate an endurance level that verges on the superhuman -- 60% of the hopefuls reportedly quit, on average -- and it's exhausting to watch them even if you're reclining in a comfortable seat with an ice-cold [product placement offers from soft drink companies welcome] in your hand. Scott's direction sometimes verges on the ludicrous ("okay, scumbags, drop and gimme 200...and don't mind that helicopter pointlessly hovering over your heads, it's just for atmosphere"), but he gives the film's familiar material the zing that it requires. Military training has never looked this expressionistic before (and before you cry Full Metal Jacket, keep in mind that it's the performances that are stylized in Kubrick's film, along with a few blue-filtered non-training scenes like the confrontation in the head. The actual training looks pretty, indeed, it should).

More significantly, this is the best performance Moore has ever given or is ever likely to give; the role of O'Neil perfectly suits her grim, humorless, determined persona. (I'd love to see her in the next Terminator movie...preferably as a Terminator.) While the left hemisphere of my brain spent the entire movie busily composing doctoral theses concerning the portrayal of women in the military in American cinema, the right hemisphere was simultaneously rooting for O'Neil to show those macho cretins what she's made of; my eyes actually became slightly moist when she begged the honcho in charge to stop dishing out special favors, and to hold her to the same standard by which the men are judged. O'Neil isn't much of a character -- her entire personality is expressed through the muscles of her jaw -- but I still wanted her to succeed...and for a character played by Demi Moore, that in itself is a considerable achievement.

Just when I was resolving myself to the horror of giving G.I. Jane a mild recommendation, however, it took the usual third-act nosedive; nobody in America seems to know how to end a movie anymore. O'Neil's training is sabotaged for political purposes, via a singularly stupid plot device ("we have pictures of you with your arm around another woman's shoulders at the beach; ergo, everyone will believe that you're a lesbian, for women never ever ever touch each other in a friendly manner"), and the moment that that tedium is none-too-believably resolved, she and the other SEALs are shipped off to Libya for a real-life skirmish, which turns out to be the least exciting, most incoherent movie battle in many a moon. (For some reason, Scott shoots much of this sequence with bizarre, palpitating camera movements that suggest the point of view of an epileptic pigeon.) And did O'Neil have to convert every fella in the entire SEAL division? Couldn't there have been one Neanderthal who still thought her a worthless, opportunistic bitch, just by way of suggesting that it might possibly take more than a month to overcome centuries of military sexism? I realize this is a Hollywood movie and all, but come on.

I won't even touch the D.H. Lawrence poetry subplot. I'm just gonna let that one go.

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IN BRIEF: Handsomely photographed and ably acted, Hoodlum is as generic as its title. True, it's a gangster movie set in Harlem, and its main character, 'Bumpy' Johnson (Laurence Fishburne), is a historical figure who's never before (to the best of my knowledge) been portrayed onscreen. The story, however, is strictly dullsville, invoking every mob cliché known to man; I kept myself awake by counting the number of other movies to which it "pays homage," and got bored of that once I'd hit a baker's dozen. Attention Hollywood: the gangster flick is dead. You got that? It is dead. You have exhausted the genre utterly. There are no new tales to tell. Move on. Do not return to the subject unless and until you come up with a truly bold and innovative approach. "But our run-of-the-mill gangsters are black!" is not sufficient. There are basically two kinds of documentary filmmaking: the kind that reconstructs, and the kind that discovers. Most docs fall into the former category, because the latter is a lot riskier -- it involves spending a lot of time and money in the possibly vain hope that a coherent and compelling portrait of your chosen subject will emerge. When it pays off, it does so handsomely, but sometimes you wind up with a whole lotta not much. And sometimes your film gets released anyway. Lucky you. Family Name, in which a white New Yorker named Macky Alston heads for his North Carolina hometown to investigate the origins of his surname, which is the most common in that area and is shared by both whites and blacks, is a so-so film that squanders a great idea, substituting home-movie poignancy for sociological inquiry. Alston clearly intends to raise questions about the true nature of race relations in the U.S., but most of his footage is only of marginal interest to those of us outside of his immediate family -- it's what you'd expect to find on Berlinger & Sinofsky's cutting-room floor. If you get excited about other people's family trees, genealogical riches await; if you're looking for a rich, incisive examination of where we've been and where we're headed, look elsewhere.

Next time (in all likelihood): Capitaine Conan, The End of Violence, The Game, The Keeper, My Mother's Courage, A Self Made Hero