For many film historians, the current independent American cinema can be traced back to the pioneering work of one filmmaker: actor-director John Cassavetes (1929-89). From Shadows (1960) to A Woman Under the Influence (1974) to Love Streams (1984), Cassavetes specialized in raw, emotional cinema.
His camera would gaze intensely at an actor long after other directors -- and most people -- would turn away embarrassed, patiently peeling away protective layers until it pierced the heart.
The legacy of John Cassavetes gets a coda with the release of She's So Lovely, directed by Nick Cassavetes from a 20 year-old screenplay by his father. Lovely is a tale of l'amour fou featuring two characters so lovably seedy and perpetually soused, they might have sprung from a light-hearted Charles Bukowski.
Maureen Murphy Quinn (Robin Wright Penn) is scrawny, jittery, clumsy, needy, irresponsible and newly pregnant. Her violent, delusional, exceedingly charming husband, Eddie Quinn (Sean Penn, Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival), seems to be her perversely perfect mate. They bicker, fight, dance and kiss with the same devoted intensity until Eddie's increasingly irrational behavior finally lands him in a mental institution. His release, 10 years later, threatens the stable suburban life Maureen has built with Joey (John Travolta) and their children.
Sean and Robin Wright Penn, wholeheartedly embracing these screwed-up hopeless romantics, exemplify not only the virtues of a Cassavetes film, but also the vices (overindulgence, histrionics).
Surprisingly, it's John Travolta -- breaking his current cycle of cooler-than-thou roles alternated with metaphysical schmaltz -- who saves She's So Lovelyfrom being a coy actors' exercise with his straight-talking, understandably pissed-off husband. Nick Cassavetes -- who directed his mother, Gena Rowlands, in Unhook the Stars -- shows a flair for fluid (and brisk) storytelling in Lovely, whose thin charms are greatly enhanced by the gorgeous wide-screen camerawork of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (The Fifth Element).
Obviously a labor of love, She's So Lovely still feels half-baked, like a moderately interesting two-act play whose screen adaptation only reveals how little was there in the first place.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.