Women under the influence

Robin Wright Penn and Alicia Silverstone are looking for a few good men

If you're nostalgic for the cockeyed let-it-all-out gabfests of the late John Cassavetes, She's So Lovely will seem like dejà vu all over again. Cassavetes wrote the script more than a decade ago, and now his son Nick--whose first feature, Unhook the Stars, starred his mother, Gena Rowlands--has directed it. Such filial devotion is admirable. She's So Lovely is something less than that.

Billed as a romantic "fable," it's full of crack-brained malcontents, and sitting through it is a bit like being trapped for a couple of hours with a barfly. Sean Penn plays Eddie, a two-bit dreamer who has been in and out of mental wards. Eddie is crazy-in-love with his wife, Maureen (Robin Wright Penn), whose pregnancy has sent him into a tizzy--he stays away from their rat-hole apartment for days at a time. Maureen also is crazy-in-love with Eddie. We get the point: Love is crazy.

It was ever so in John Cassavetes-ville. His most acclaimed film, A Woman Under the Influence, featured Rowlands' Mabel Longhetti as a mother and housewife coming apart; her dissolution was romanticized as a "higher" form of sanity.

For Cassavetes, the excesses of mania defined drama, and he drew on those excesses with a performer's passion. As a writer-director, he was essentially serving the rhythms and intuitions of the performing process, and many of his films, although scripted, had the freeform dreariness--and occasional psychological revelation--of acting exercises. The Cassavetes rat pack--notably Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassell, and Cassavetes himself--mumbled and growled and boozed their way into a deeper "truth" than you could get from the more traditional movies.

At least that was the game plan. I always thought Cassavetes' no-pain-no-gain dramaturgy was a long sit. It wasn't just a performer's passion he was putting on display, but a performer's psychotherapy as well; his movies were grounded in the assumption that, in stripping off a character's guises, you were getting the essential person. There's a deep reverence for letting go in his movies--for giving it all up for love. What some of us found so off-putting about his films was the extraordinary self-indulgence of that love. In the movies, as in life, not every blowhard deserves a hearing.

Much is being made in the press about the wonderfulness of resurrecting an unfilmed John Cassavetes screenplay. But surely--as he would probably be the first to agree--Cassavetes' scripts were not his prime calling cards. (I would be more excited if someone resurrected, say, a long-lost script by Preston Sturges or Ben Hecht.) A Cassavetes script was a blueprint for pulling apart his actors and then trying to put them together again.

And in She's So Lovely, they sure do pull apart. The reason this film is being fobbed off as a fable must be because its people are so suffocatingly screwy. They exist in a hyped-up continuum in which all human emotion becomes an acting exercise. By letting out all the stops in a bullheaded quest for a "greater" truth, She's So Lovely comes across as inhumane and derelict.

No one in the film, for example, ever raises the red flag on the pregnant Maureen's boozing--certainly not Eddie. Their undying love for each other is mostly a matter of indulging their excesses--because that's what true love is in John Cassavetes' world. When Eddie discovers that a boorish neighbor roughed up Maureen, he packs a pistol and ends up killing a mental-health paramedic. Yet the emphasis in this episode is all on the poor, forlorn Eddie. He did it for love. He's killed somebody, and he's still being propped up as a love-struck saint.

She's So Lovely divides evenly in two. In the second section, Eddie, released after 10 years in a mental hospital, rejoins Maureen, who has three daughters and a new, well-to-do husband, Joey (John Travolta), and lives in the suburbs. She's cleaned up her act, but she's still in love with Eddie. He's been in a fog for 10 years and thinks he's been hospitalized for only eight months. Their reunion is one of those protracted knock-down drag-out Cassavetes affairs that, again, smacks of an essential inhumanity. Eddie and Joey tussle on the suburban lawn, with a gun about to go off and Eddie's 9-year-old daughter looking on-- yet the scene is played for yucks, with jaunty music on the soundtrack.

Sean Penn is trying to locate the frailty inside Eddie's dazed swagger. He's touching--which is more than this film deserves--but his character has no emotional continuity. Released from the mental hospital, Eddie is almost completely out of it, but he recovers almost immediately when it comes time to reconnect with Maureen. If the film had established the cycle of Eddie's manic phases, or demonstrated his recuperative powers, his lickety-split recovery might not seem like a such a glitch. (It's as though the projectionist skipped a reel.) But Cassavetes--Nick and John--probably figured Eddie's manic phases are untraceable anyway. For them, a little thing like character development, even if the character is cracked, would be distinctly "unromantic."

Unhook the Stars had some fine human touches and a performance by Rowlands that was very different from her grandstanding psychodramatics in John's films. In She's So Lovely, Nick Cassavetes doesn't mimic his father's directorial style--the way his camera operated as a kind of homing device for the actors' every twitch and tussle. He's a much more straightforward filmmaker, but, in visual terms, he's trying to achieve clarity with material that defies it. As a result, the actors all seem isolated by their shenanigans.

The absurdity of what they are being asked to do comes to us unimpeded by the usual John Cassavetes accessories--the "raw" cinematography and joy-riding camera work. And so the actors, in their isolation, seem doubly absurd. Robin Wright Penn is doing the Rowlands blowsy-angel bit, but she's so mannered she might be competing for Jennifer Jason Leigh's crown. Penn, perhaps to match her, piles up the mannerisms too. Travolta, who seems to be appearing in every third movie these days--is he afraid Hollywood will forget him again?--also is uncharacteristically actor-ish; perhaps he didn't want to be left out. He does things like say tink for think--just so we know Joey's an up-from-the-streets kind of guy.

Of the cast, only Harry Dean Stanton, playing Eddie's best friend, comes across as a recognizable human being. Stanton is amazing; I don't think I've ever seen him give a bad performance. Oblivious to the human zoo in She's So Lovely, he quietly goes his own way. His down-home resonance is more than a breath of fresh air--it's the only gulp of oxygen in the entire movie.

Excess Baggage, Alicia Silverstone's first feature from her First Kiss Productions, turns out to be a rather shaggy and uninvolving jaunt. As Emily T. Hope, the moneyed teenager looking for love from her emotionally distant single dad (Jack Thompson), Silverstone pouts a lot while trying to wring our sympathy. Even though she plays a character who engineers her own kidnapping and gets caught up in a cops-and-crooks spree, Silverstone doesn't seem to be in on the action. She's still playing the spoiled rich kid from Clueless, except in that film her princessy aloofness and connivance had more of a point. It was a setup for her comeuppance.

But in Excess Baggage, as in Batman & Robin, Silverstone, young as she is, already has the glazed, imperious look of a star who rations her favors. She's not taking any chances here, and it's a bit early in the game for that. Silverstone has talent, but she needs to be in movies that play around with her golden-girl pedigree--she needs filmmakers who can bring out the humor, and also the unpleasantness, in her Rodeo Drive shininess. As the producer of Excess Baggage, she protects herself--and blands herself out in the process.

What keeps the film from being the kind of thing that turns up on the USA Network is the presence of those wayward scene stealers Christopher Walken and Benicio Del Toro. Walken is Emily's "uncle" Ray--an ex-CIA assassin recruited by her father to rescue her. By usual Walken standards, Ray is a good guy, but Walken still plays him like a bad guy. His cadenced monotone and village-of-the-damned glowers are still mighty creepy. The performance is a must for the burgeoning number of Walken impressionists in our midst.

Del Toro, best known for The Usual Suspects, is playing the car thief who inadvertently gets hooked into Emily's kidnapping-for-ransom scheme. It takes awhile to get used to Del Toro's low-slung drawl; he makes Tom Waits sound like David Niven. But after a while you look forward to that drawl--it's practically the only thing you want to listen to in the movie. It's like verbal blues--a sleepy-time patter that comes out of a richer and freakier movie than the one we're watching.

She's So Lovely.
Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, John Travolta, Harry Dean Stanton, Debi Mazar. Written by John Cassavetes. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Opens Friday.

Excess Baggage.
Alicia Silverstone, Jack Thompson, Christopher Walken, Benicio Del Toro, Harry Connick, Jr. Written by Max D. Adams, Dick Clement, and Ian La Fresnais. Directed by Marco Brambilla. Opens Friday.

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