May 1, 2008

Hunt melodrama can’t find its heart

In 21st-century American movie culture, where anything with fewer than two explosions fails to attract an enormous audience, the label “boring” can be applied to any film that doesn’t increase your heart rate at least 20 beats per second. That makes distinguishing between 20th- and 21st- century standards of boring a particular challenge—think Bad Boys vs. Bad Boys II. Nonetheless, by any standard you’re more likely to fall asleep than be captivated by Then She Found Me, a film that seems to be the living embodiment of the adjective “flat.”

Based on the 1990 novel by Elinor Lipman, Then She Found Me is the kind of movie that could only make sense if you’re familiar with New York City Jewish culture. Even as an Upper West Side native, I found myself wondering exactly what point director Helen Hunt was trying to make about this milieu. There are a lot of themes explored in the film: the complications of adoption, the premenopausal desire for a child, adult adolescence, and the struggles of post-divorce relationships, among others. Yet the film never digs deep enough into any of these subjects and leaves you with nothing to think over as you exit the theater.

An Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress best remembered for her role in the television show Mad About You, Hunt’s previous directing experience is limited to a handful of that show’s later episodes. In Then She Found Me, which she also co-wrote and produced, Hunt stars as April Epner, an adopted Jewish 39-year-old schoolteacher desperate for a baby as her biological clock ticks away. The film focuses on the discovery of her birth mother­, TV personality Bernice Graves (Bette Midler), and April’s relationship struggles with her outgoing husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) and incoming boyfriend Frank (Colin Firth). The screenplay, while filled with occasionally funny moments and cuts, is hopelessly cluttered and choppy. The same can be said of Hunt’s directing; she doesn’t really seem to know how to use a camera other than for a TV sitcom.

It feels like there are four films here and any one of them would be more interesting than all of them put together. We don’t get enough of a sense of April’s loyalty to her adoptive family—which includes a criminally underutilized Ben Shenkman as April’s brother Freddy—or the full arc of her budding relationship with her birth mother. The best part of the film is April’s romance with Frank, an insomniac book-jacket writer overwhelmed by the burden of single fatherhood, who is without a doubt the most complex character of the film. Firth steals every scene he’s in, and is easily the most redeeming element of the film. Still, April’s relationship saga would be better if not for the man–child performance of Broderick as April’s separated husband Ben. For the first time in his career, Broderick seems to be on autopilot.

Then She Found Me’s main influence is obviously Woody Allen, and frankly, Allen has done all the movies contained in Then She Found Me better, be it Hannah and Her Sisters, Mighty Aphrodite, or Manhattan. It would certainly have been interesting for Hunt to take on a less self-absorbed, more feminine side of the same story, but she lacks the confidence behind the camera or with the pen to really make a convincing film here. While Allen’s neurosis was endearing and usually played for laughs, it’s hard for anyone to really feel sympathy for April, as Hunt never really develops her sense of humor. While critics usually prefer films to be heart-rending rather than laugh-out-loud funny, Then She Found Me would be much better as a comedy than a melodrama. With Midler’s semi-obscene ramblings and the occasional awkward scenes of both Broderick and Firth joining Hunt for an ultrasound, it’s arguable that Hunt wanted this movie to be a comedy. If so, her attempt is pretty unconvincing, and it’s certainly not all that funny.