by Jeff Meyers
Does anyone really love Bette Midler? I mean, other than gay men and my Aunt Elaine?
In Helen Hunt's directing debut — an adaptation of Elinor Lipman's very '90s novel — Midler provides all the brassy, motor-mouth mugging you'd expect from an actress who perpetually seems on the verge of breaking into song. On the surface, she seems like a terrible choice for an intimate art-house comic drama.
Still, Hunt would have done well to use Midler's outsized persona more. Filled with terrific yet overly earnest performances, Then She Found Me could have seriously benefited from more of her pep and zing. Instead, the smart and knowingly bittersweet film casts a gloomy spell that begs for a bit of sparkle. A kindred spirit to indie chick flicks like Pieces Of April or Walking And Talking, Hunt's gentle tale of middle-age romantic angst has some hugely poignant moments but lacks the invention, focus and nuance of those films.
Elementary schoolteacher April (Hunt) is going through a tough time. Staring down the barrel of menopause, she longs to have a baby but is ditched by her man-child husband (Matthew Broderick) the day before her adopted mother dies. She's depressed and confused, and things only get stranger when her long-lost birth mother, Bernice (Midler), a larger-than-life morning talk show host, turns up. It's a messy reunion, complicated by Bernice's inability to tell the truth, April's struggles with faith, an unexpected pregnancy and a budding romance with unkempt-but-hunky single dad Frank (Colin Firth).
As a first effort, Hunt acquits herself ably. Her direction is competent, if unspectacular, and her performance is moving despite a decidedly dour approach. The film's real troubles lie with Hunt's overly earnest and relentlessly understated line-of-attack.
One of the virtues of recent indie comedies like Little Miss Sunshine or Lonesome Jim has been their use of sly wit and smartly irreverent humor to disarm volatile emotions or risqué subject matter. Hunt, for reasons unknown, has purposely dampened down her story's comic elements and sidelined April's relationship with Bernice (the focus of the novel) in favor of her character's romantic struggles. It's a tragically predictable choice that is mostly saved by Firth's sullen charm. But even more unfortunate is Hunt's decision to muffle the film's provocative ideas about religious faith, motherhood and adoption. It's not that Hunt doesn't give those issues their moments, it's that they don't get enough of them nor are they convincingly integrated into the dramatic whole. Hidden amid the unpersuasive hide-and seek-relationships with Broderick and Firth is a decidedly middle-age, middle-class female perspective on what it means to be a mother and how to lead a spiritual life. It's a rare combination of issues for film and it deserves more attention than a few well-written asides.
Nevertheless, Then She Found Me has many moments worth admiring. April's confrontation with Bernice about why she chose to give her up as an infant is heart-piercingly real. Firth's rage-filled explosion of honesty after he learns he's been betrayed redeems a character who, for most of the film, seems almost too perfect to be true. And April's final acknowledgement of love's inevitable disappointments provides a much-needed grace note to the choppy romance earlier.
Similarly, the performances are mostly terrific. Firth takes a potentially bland love interest and deftly turns it into something loopy but sincere. And Hunt, directing herself (no easy task), avoids the overblown melodrama that typically sinks characters like hers, and delivers a credibly rough-edged performance. Only Broderick fails to convince as the 40-year-old arrested, but sexually irresistible, adolescent.
Indie cinema is littered with idiosyncratic characters struggling to find love, and Then She Found Me toes the line between sentimentality and cautious hope. Luckily, Hunt understands that relationships seldom happen the way we expect them to and remains on the right side of that line. Her film may not always get to the heart of longing and disenchantment, but it gets close enough to give it look.
Now playing at the Maple Art Theatre. 4135 W. Maple Rd., Birmingham; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.