No Concessions: “Then She Found Me” and “Standard Operating Procedure”

Written by No Concessions

noconcessions.jpgLike Hillary Clinton, Helen Hunt has always bugged me. I was never crazy about Mad About You, and while I don’t think she deserves the barbs thrown at her for As Good As It Gets (she’s been lambasted as one of the least deserving Best Actress winners) I’m not exactly quick to rise to her defense, either. Again, like HRC, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly that annoys me about her. I think, on film, it may be the way she listens — the camera closes in tight on her exposure-hardened face (all that TV and movie work since she played Murray’s daughter on The Mary Tyler Moore show takes its toll) and she gets all sensitive and concerned on us. Now that in itself is no grounds for petulance, but there’s something awfully mannered about that look, which she has hung on her puss for decades now. It’s a kind of body armor, a wall against getting too close. Under the guise of empathy, of wanting to care and share, I see a big “Keep Away” sign hung around her neck. She gives you this look that suggests she feels your pain, but I know if you dared try to hug her she’d slap the crap out of you.

But, just as Clinton has impressed me by hanging tough in this campaign, going to the mattresses as surely as the characters in The Godfather after Don Corleone is hit, so, too, do I feel a new respect for Hunt with Then She Found Me,which ThinkFilm opens today. This is her debut as a feature film director (she is a co-producer and co-writer as well) and her multi-year struggle to bring Elinor Lipman’s novel to the screen accounts in part for some odd ellipses in her post-Oscar career. (I saw her on Broadway in a gorgeously designed Twelfth Night and the comedy-drama Life x 3, but her thoroughly adequate performances left little trace in my memory bank.) Going to see a Hunt-hyphenate picture, with her doing all those tasks and starring as well, was about as appealing to me as a stretch in Abu Ghraib (see below). Yet Then She Found Me has a kind of toughlove charm I responded to.

It’s not hard to see why Hunt pushed hard to make the film happen: The role of April Epner, a New York schoolteacher for whom 39 is the new 39, is exactly in her range. April is married, unfulfillingly, to boy-man Ben (Matthew Broderick),and when the months-old union collapses, so go her plans to have a child. April is adopted, and the death of her adoptive mother (scrappy Off-Broadway actress Lynn Cohen) is another blow. The two entrances that follow these exits are equally unsettling. First comes Frank (Colin Firth), the divorced dad of one of April’s pupils, who urges her to go slow on the new relationship front but can’t stick with the program himself. The other is Bernice (Bette Midler), a brassy TV talk show host, who claims to be her birth mother. Complications ensue.

The film is April’s journey, but Hunt wisely lets her fellow travelers go the distance. The ladies love Firth, and for April and Frank not to hook up would violate every tenet in the romantic comedy-drama playbook. When they get together, and how it all plays out, is not so simple. Frank is wounded and defensive, and Firth puts his sensitive male persona aside to show some different textures. (He’s a good actor, and you can feel his pleasure at going outside the box a bit.) Hunt and Broderick got up to some monkey business in1987’s Project X; 21 years later, he has just enough of his youthful DNA left to make the half-grownup Ben a thoroughly discomfiting presence, clinging to his mom and his room in her old house.

This isn’t really a girl-meets-boy picture, though. The heart of the story is the clenched April’s reaction to the good-time Bernice, and Midler (Hunt’s co-star in What Women Want) excels in the part. She does so by doing the unexpected, and underplaying. Bernice has made her choices and has lived with them, and neither woman can quite come to terms with each other. Their scenes could have a sitcom sheen to them, yet neither actress goes for gloss. The dynamic between them is interestingly fraught, particularly when Bernice injects herself into April’s attempt at single motherhood, forcing them to confront their own maternal mess.

Truth be told, Then She Found Me is a bit of a mess itself, with some unwieldy scenes and a few quirky digressions (in a cameo, Salman Rushdie plays an obstetrician). It doesn’t entirely hang together. Nor, however, does it fall apart. And it does some things well — the faith of its Jewish characters is quietly observed, without making a big fuss over their traditions, and the homes and neighborhoods are as unglamorous and lived-in as the stars. In a dull time for movies, Hunt’s assured acting and direction, and expert performances by Midler, Firth, and Broderick, make the funny and touching Then She Found Me a film worth finding. Like Clinton, Hunt doesn’t have my vote, but this modestly accomplished debut makes for a fresh start.

If Then She Found Me is better than I thought Helen Hunt would be capable of, then Standard Operating Procedure, which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing today, is an underachiever from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris. That is not a knock — the film is worth seeking out. Lesser Morris is still better than most of what’s out there.

Stylistically, the film is SOP for the director, whose last film was the riveting Fog of War. His interview subjects, in this case the notoriously snap-happy perpetrators of human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib, are put into Morris’ “Interrotron” unit for some interview shake-and-bake as incidents are slavishly recreated for us and very loud, look-at-what-went-on here music by Danny Elfman crashes through the auditorium. Nothing quite compares to the shock of seeing Lynndie England again — in the still photos she is very much the Barbara Steele of the interrogation facility, a tight cruel smile playing across her lips in the manner of the star of the horror classics Black Sunday and The Pit and the Pendulum. When these people fall off the front pages it’s as if they fell off the very face of the planet, and the recall that Morris provides is jolting. (England, 20 at the time of her notoriety, is aged well beyond her years today.)

I do wish, however, that the film had concentrated on the stories told by five of the “seven bad apples” corralled for the film. Or, rather, that Morris had. The accounts of the MPs, who insist they were following dubious orders, are shocking. (As shocking is that they come across as regular, ordinary people, cases in point of the banality of evil.) Morris is indignant about the Bush administration’s role in all this, and the film is meant to throw light on the shadows. “The photographs are doing two thing sat the same time,” Morris says in the press packet. “They provide an expose and they provide a cover-up. They showed the world that these things were going on, but they point the finger at a very small group of people. They make you think it’s these people who were the culprits. These are the people who are responsible for everything. This is a misdirection. It gives you a false picture.”

The real pictures speak so eloquently for themselves I wish Morris hadn’t gone the recreation route of The Thin Blue Line, where the dramatizations were necessary to place us in the story. Artily shot by Robert Richardson, the ones in the new film don’t really engage us — shots of dust hanging in the air are very pretty, but weightless — and serve to pad the running time. (The cut-ins of snarling dogs, repeated several times as that damned music blares, are a little ridiculous.) And Morris is not much of an interviewer: What we hear from the interviewees (some of whom were paid for their participation) has an impact but isn’t properly shaped, and in his rush to go up the chain of command he lets too much self-serving go by. (Let us not forget that they were guilty of something, if not the war in its entirety.) The advantage that The Fog of War has over this ambitious but flawed film is that its subject was more than willing to talk about past failures and misdeeds; the soldiers here keep their guard up over their fresher hell, and Morris can’t crack their shells.

Standard Operating Procedure, Morris says, is something of a work in progress; he hopes to interview the other two soldiers, who were imprisoned at the time of the film. As it is,there is plenty to chew on. The next time around, however, I’d advise trimming the fat in favor of a leaner, cleaner, and more sharply pointed narrative.