A movie about a woman in her late 30s who is desperate to have a baby is a hard sell in the male teen-oriented movie environment of today, or so the story goes in nearly every mainstream media outlet, including this one. That’s because there’s practically a law stating we must acknowledge prevailing perceptions largely created and maintained by their constant acknowledgment, before we go on to reify them further. Who am I to buck the trend?
In any case, and defying all laws of probability and presumed palatability, this week offers up two such movies -- one a bright, broad comedy starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and another a narrower, flintier movie starring Helen Hunt and Bette Midler. Despite the appearance of Midler, “Then She Found Me” treats the subject more dramatically, likening the desire to have a child to hunger, thirst or the urge to relieve oneself -- all three longings that will make anyone cranky, Hunt especially.
FOR THE RECORD: This review incorrectly refers to the title of the movie “Then She Found Me” as “Then She Met Me.”
The problem isn’t so much the character of April as it is the way Hunt plays her -- a little too whiny, a little too angry to be very sympathetic. Hunt has a tendency to play up those characteristics in just about everything she does (since her days as the put-upon shiksa in TV’s “Mad About You”), but the movie would have been better served with a more relaxed actress in the role. The equating of smart and no longer young with angry and bitter has so plagued women’s roles in recent years that it seems a shame it should recur in a movie written and directed by a woman, from a novel also by a woman.
Despite this slight casting misstep (Hunt, who also makes her feature directing debut, has said in interviews that she chose herself to play the lead because she knew that with budget and time constraints she’d be asking more from her lead actress than was seemly), “Then She Met Me” is unexpectedly sharp, light and appealing; a testament to Hunt’s skills behind the camera. (She also co-wrote the script with Victor Levin, from the novel by Elinor Lipman, as well as produced.)
A low-key, rather consoling fantasy deftly masquerading as way-we-live-now slice of life, the movie concerns a rather grim schoolteacher, April Epner (Hunt), who loses everything at once and gains it all back, only better. Her immature husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick), leaves her after just one year of marriage and her abrasive adoptive mother Trudy (Lynn Cohen) dies soon afterward, at which point Colin Firth and Bette Midler appear almost instantly to take their places.
Firth plays Frank, a book-jacket writer with two young children -- one of them is in April’s class -- whose wife left him and the kids to travel the world with her new boyfriend. Within moments of meeting April, he offers her the kind of earnest, uncomplicated, soulful love that in the real world could only be classified as pathological, solipsistic neediness, but which here comes off as charming and virile. Midler plays the antidote to April’s quarrelsome adoptive Jewish mother, who even from her deathbed refuses to give it a rest. (Trudy wants April to adopt a little girl from China.)
Midler plays Bernice, a local celebrity talk show host, whose attitude toward life couldn’t be more different from April’s. In fact, given the general air of moroseness that surrounds the other characters, Bernice’s scenes inject a dose of sunshine. But April is resistant to Bernice’s brand of happy, until she learns she is pregnant with her now-absent husband’s child and turns to Bernice for advice.
There’s something about Hunt’s put-upon persona that grates, and it would be nice to see her for once in a role that doesn’t call on her to be so angry, short-tempered and disappointed all the time. Midler’s character is radiant by contrast, and much smarter-seeming for knowing how to live. Still, all in all, “Then She Found Me” is a warm, entertaining and well-made little movie and an auspicious debut for Hunt the director.
“Then She Found Me.” MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. In limited release.