For Helen Hunt, now is not a good time
by Jason Blair
THEN SHE FOUND ME: Directed by Helen Hunt. Written by Alice Arlen, Victor Levin and Helen Hunt, based upon the Elinor Lipman novel. Cinematography, Peter Donahue. Music, David Mansfield. Starring Helen Hunt, Colin Firth, Bette Midler and Matthew Broderick. THINKFilm, 2008. R. 100 minutes. 44211
|Frank (Colin Firth) and April (Helen Hunt) in Then She Found Me|
When we first meet April Epner (Helen Hunt), her wedding is about to begin. After a brisk but persuasive montage of the ceremony, Then She Found Me lurches forward to a spat between April and her mother, during which April reveals feeling inferior for being adopted. It’s a bit sudden, this disclosure, and even April seems alarmed by it, but it’s only the first of several clouds on the horizon. In the next scene, presumably a few months later, her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) reveals, “I don’t want this life.” What life he’s referring to is beyond our ability to say, since he hasn’t been onscreen since their wedding vows, but no matter, because immediately following his departure, April’s mother passes away. At that point, I’m reaching for the emergency brake: When a film throws a character over a cliff with such resolve, it helps to have a sense of the height from which she’s hurled. Or in the case of April Epner, how low she’s sunk, since April, at 39, is freshly dumped and without children. Then She Found Me is 13 minutes old at this point. What’s more, the film is a comedy.
Then, a twist: April’s birth mother makes contact through an intermediary. What April needs is a safe harbor; instead, she gets Bernice (Bette Midler), a bubbly, somewhat nutty television personality whose favorite topic is herself. Midler’s Bernice is wonderfully evasive regarding the circumstances of April’s conception — at one point, she claims Steve McQueen was the father — while Hunt, who has appeared in only four films since the underrated Cast Away (2000), is overly frustrated and desperate, her face a mask of worry and defeat. (Hunt’s face, once so softly lined, is harder and thinner now, as if creased by sadness.) The film, abundantly grim to this point, comes alive with the arrival of Frank (Colin Firth), another abandoned soul looking for a mate. Firth is a rumpled, charming mess; April not only takes to him, she feels emboldened by his carefree ways, even going so far as to investigate Bernice’s claims of being her mother. Frank’s part is the best-conceived character in the film, and what’s more, Firth understands the light touch the role needs. Without Frank, Then She Found Me would be almost unwatchable. When he’s not onscreen, the tone swings between sanctimonious and daffy.
Which brings us back to Hunt, who makes her directorial debut with Then She Found Me. Hunt aims for the comedy-with-a-serious-theme of the James L. Brooks variety, which makes sense because Hunt starred in the Brooks gem As Good as It Gets. But Hunt never establishes the delicate balance she’s after. The material requires subtle shifts between breakdown and breakthrough, between grim and glib, in order to handle the interplay of themes at work, which include aging, separation, parenthood, spirituality and forgiveness, among others. In fact, the film is so broadly orchestrated that the jokes, like seeds tossed to the wind, find no purchase. For her first project, it might have been wiser to work a smaller patch of ground, if only to give the material a more straightforward, manageable feel.
Then She Found Me opens Friday, May 30, at the Bijou.