Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Watching a movie that begins brilliantly is often, for me, a rather nerve-wracking experience. If twenty or thirty minutes go by and I'm still enjoying the hell out of a picture, I begin to get a bit anxious. Can they possibly keep it up? Or will the film veer out of control at any moment, dashing my hopes? Grace of My Heart, Allison Anders' schizophrenic tale of a Carole King-esque singer/songwriter's journey from the Brill Building to eventual superstardom, let me down like no film in recent memory -- for the first thirty minutes, I thought it was a shoo-in for this year's top ten list, but I spent the final thirty praying for it to Please End Soon. For the hour or so in-between, the descent from charming, effervescent comedy to banal, maudlin melodrama was both gradual and disheartening. The problem -- a common one in films based, however tenuously, on real people and events -- is one of focus. The travails of a female songwriter in the 1960s who longs to record her own material, but is forced by circumstance to pen tunes for others, is a terrific idea for a movie, and the section of Grace of My Heart that covers this period is first-rate: witty, energetic, confident, and quietly subversive. Illeana Douglas, who stole every scene in which she appeared in the overrated To Die For, gives a luminous, endearing performance as Denise Waverly (née Edna Buxton), and John Turturro, as the producer who hires her to churn out hit singles for his more commercially accessible artists (solo females were then out of vogue), provides an amusing variation on his stock weirdo character, complete with ridiculous wig and goatee. This material could easily sustain an entire feature, but the film unfortunately insists upon following Waverly for many more years, long after her story has ceased to be even remotely interesting...long, in fact, after our sun will have collapsed into a white dwarf and rendered the Earth a cold, forbidding, lifeless rock. Anders, who has a reputation as a feminist, demonstrates no such sensibility here; her film is less interested in Waverly's career and art than it is in her disastrous relationships with weak, self-serving men, all of which are tedious. The buoyant tone begins to falter when Waverly falls for Bruce Davison's married DJ, and by the time Matt Dillon turns up as Brian Wilson (oops, I mean disturbed-genius-singer-songwriter-producer Jay Phillips, of the surfer band The Beach Boys [oops, I mean The Riptides]), and the film turns into an unintentional parody of A Star Is Born, the goodwill engendered by the opening reels has been utterly exhausted. I tried yelling "Pull up! Pull up!" at the screen, but it didn't work.