July 4, 2008

Movie Review: A Soap Opera for the Big Screen

By Mal Vincent, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jul. 4--While we are in need of "serious" films about "real" life, there is no charm, or value, in getting quite as melodramatic about it as all the characters do in "Then She Found Me," a movie that has enough over-the-top turns to fuel a month of "Search for Tomorrow" episodes.

If it isn't one thing, it's another as April Epner's biological clock ticks, but none too rapidly. Helen Hunt, who plays the lead, joins the list of Academy Award-winning actresses who rapidly fell from glory after winning the coveted statuette. Others are Halle Berry, Charlize Theron and even golden girl Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hunt was a television star when she walked off with the best-actress award for "As Good as It Gets" (1997), presumably for holding her own against Jack Nicholson. It was not wise to be away from the big screen for a few years after winning the Oscar. Her ambition shows, however, with "Then She Found Me" because she not only stars but co-wrote the script and directed. (Shades of Barbra Steisand!)

It would have taken a much shrewder director, though, to bring off the movie's cliches.

Hunt, looking gaunt and worn ( on purpose?), plays a 39-year-old schoolteacher who desperately wants to have a child. She's disappointed by her boyish, new husband (Matthew Broderick), a fellow teacher who breaks into tears, tells her the marriage is a mistake and rushes back to his mother. It's just the beginning of outlandish scenes in which April must react to the miseries inflicted upon her by a cruel world.

Perhaps we are supposed to notice that, as a director, she doesn't give herself the most dramatic moments. Perhaps this is "restraint." One can only wonder.

Anyway, April's adoptive mother dies, and it seems she always has been troubled by the fact that she was adopted. Her brother, a biological child, was the "real" thing. This, supposedly, is why she wants a child of her own so desperately.

Laying it on thick, April's "real" mother shows up. Wonder of wonders, it's Bette Midler. Any actress who would cast herself as the daughter of Midler has to have guts.

In a ludicrous caricature of her own image, Midler plays a brassy, small-time talk-show host who acts, at all times, as if she's a diva. She claims she's been desperate to find her long-abandoned daughter and make things right, but she offers no more than defensive excuses. She was poor. She had a career. Baby April had to be put up for adoption.

The possibility of a new romance for April quickly surfaces by way of the divorced father of one of her students. He's played by Colin Firth, who specializes in playing Mr. Right to desperate women, from Jane Austen to this adaptation of Elinor Lipman's 1990 novel. He's damaged, though. His wife deserted him, leaving him with the two children. Firth, who goes into a rage when he feels he's been betrayed, has the most overwritten and overacted scene in the movie, and that's saying a lot.

Hunt, who directed a few episodes of the "Mad About You" TV series, is making her feature directorial debut here. She has a tendency to see every scene as an individual little drama that ends on a melodramatic beat. Rather than creating a cohesive whole, she has a group of scenes that are little episodes unto themselves.

Everyone is cast for predictability. Firth is the handsome last chance. Broderick, again, is the man-boy with a nerdish bent. Midler is all brass but, thankfully, her character never has to be "redeemed." She refuses to deny her selfishness in abandoning baby April, which, after all, is a touch of honesty amid all the pathos.

Those who have tried to call this a "dark comedy" have strange senses of humor.

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347, [email protected]


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