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Message in a Bottle, or How Alcoholism Drama Defied Odds : Movies: ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ is defying the conventional wisdom that dark subjects are a tough summer sell.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Heading into Memorial Day, it seems that the studios--and moviegoers--are single-mindedly ready for escapism, with a season on tap of family pictures, comedies, gunslinging Westerns and the usual array of action-adventure films.

But on the eve of the coming summer season, an emotional drama from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures banner about, of all things, alcoholism and recovery has somehow struck a nerve in audiences across the nation.

“When a Man Loves a Woman,” starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan, last weekend grossed $9.4 million in its first week playing nationally, defying conventional wisdom that dark subjects are a tough sell, particularly in such a lighthearted season.

Box-office expectations were anything but high for the movie, even with star power of two likable actors, given that it had a subject matter that might scare most moviegoers off. But through careful marketing, which allowed word-of-mouth to build, and a decision by the filmmakers to reshape the movie from a dark comedy into a reality-driven romance, the material clicked with audiences.

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“I think that there is always a fear (at major studios) that these kind of movies are not going to work,” said the film’s director, Luis Mandoki (“White Palace”). “Personally, I never made this movie to be a commercial hit. When I read the script it moved my heart. I was crying with it. I decided to do it just because of that.”

The filmmakers believe that the movie is much more than a story about a recovering alcoholic. They say it is first and foremost a romance--but not in the traditional “fairy tale” way that Hollywood often treats love. It is a story about how alcoholism affects a couple and their family, and about what they do to retain that love.

Written by Ronald Bass (“Rain Man”) and Al Franken, the film is about a beautiful couple with a seemingly picture-perfect family and, as one reviewer called it , “a J. Crew catalogue lifestyle.” But their marriage is threatened by her drinking.

Mandoki said outsiders may believe that Disney executives would have tried to sanitize that angle, but the opposite was true. He said that David Hoberman, Disney’s president of motion pictures, actually fought to harden the script.

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"(Hoberman) said, ‘I want to make an honest, realistic film and I want to go all the way with that,’ ” Mandoki recalled. “Usually, the heads of studios say, ‘Let’s make this more commercial,’ but he wanted to take the risk and make an honest movie. I was in shock.”

When the project originated five years ago, Franken--best known as a writer and sometime performer on “Saturday Night Live"--envisioned it more as a dark comedy about co-dependency, recalled Bass, who said that actor Tom Hanks at the time was linked to the project.

The first director, Alan Pakula, had a “different vision,” Bass said, and completely rewrote the script and it “fell apart.” Then about a year and a half ago, Mandoki came on the scene and liked the original. With Mandoki, Bass and Franken eventually removed some of the comedy scenes, which Disney felt would undercut the reality of the movie.

After Hanks fell out of the project, Bass said, Garcia and Ryan were the first choices of the filmmakers and the studio.

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Selling the movie could have been seen as a tough prospect for Disney. But the studio had gone against conventional wisdom in the past with such counterprogramming movies as “Dead Poets Society,” a hit in the summer of 1989.

Initially, Disney thought of releasing the film earlier in the year, but settled on mid-May, believing that there were no similar films at that time. It originally opened in limited release in 12 cities, a technique known as “platforming,” then opened in wider release last Friday after word-of-mouth began to build.

“We settled on May 13 because it was just prior to the Memorial Day weekend when all the summer movies begin to hit,” said Richard Cook, head of Disney’s releasing arm Buena Vista Distribution. “It was against the fabric of ‘Maverick,’ ‘Beverly Hills Cop III’ and ‘The Flintstones.’ This was a movie with a very different tone from the three of those.”

Moviegoers at local theaters this week said they were drawn to the film by the combination of Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia in a romance and by the theme of a couple struggling to overcome a huge crisis that strikes many families.

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“I love those two,” said Pam Smith of Dana Point at the Edwards Cinema Theater in Laguna Hills.

At the Topanga Theatre in the San Fernando Valley, Susan Gallagher of Simi Valley, said: “It was touching and true to life. It shows the need that the person who’s not the alcoholic has, the feeling that they get from nurturing. It’s about how you can be an enabler and about the people who get pleasure out of it encouraging you to keep drinking.”

Jim Moore of Woodland Hills added: “It showed the sincerity and realism of alcoholism. It was very accurate, my father was an alcoholic, so I know what that’s like. It was very true to life, the way one person reacts to another, when one person is hurting the other wants to help.”

Jason Corsetti, a Cal State Fullerton student, said the movie seemed to compromise some of its entertainment level for the sake of presenting a realistic view of alcoholism.

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“I think it brought the point home . . . (it seemed the director) felt the need to address the issue overshadowed the entertaining. If that was the point, they achieved it.”

His teary-eyed partner, who would not give her name, said she had a personal experience with family alcoholism. Of the movie, she said, “That’s exactly how it is. The movie was right on.”

Both said they had been drawn to the movie mainly for Ryan and Garcia.

Norman Harris of Calabasas thought it was a “far-fetched,” but added: “I think a lot of people are tired of multimillion-dollar special-effects movies and when it’s a good story, word gets around.”

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Times staff writer Aileen Cho and free-lance writer Sylvia L. Oliande contributed to this story.


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