Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, John Travolta, Harry Dean Stanton.
(R, 112 min.)
Ever notice how many more barroom bards, philosopher punks, and bus-stop oracles there are in art than in real life? Nothing like a few colorful expletives and squalid urban tableaux to help artists ward off charges of pretension and foster the coveted perception of "raw honesty." The late John Cassavetes, on whose screenplay this film is based, was hailed by his devotees a master of the sort of faux vernacular which found (or imposed) poetic cadences and meaning in the profane, inarticulate speech of the urban working class. Director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars), directs this previously unproduced script with total reverence toward his father's words, confining the action to a handful of sets and allowing stars Penn and Wright Penn free reign in delivering their numerous emotion-charged soliloquies. This is basically a two-act play chronicling the intense, troubled romance of Eddie (Penn) and Mo (Wright-Penn), whose love somehow manages to survive their binges of hardcore boozing, violence, and mutual deception. The first half ends with Eddie a wildly unstable character who vaults from sanity to raging psychosis and back as if he had a switch in his cranium being packed off to a mental institution. The story resumes when he's let out 10 years later and finds that Mo has divorced him, re-wed a prosperous businessman named Joey (Travolta), and is raising three kids in a sitcom-perfect suburban household. Though I'll defend much of John Cassavetes work (A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) against charges of aimless incoherence, the rap is all too appropriate here. The disparity between the disturbing, crazy electricity of the first half and the farcical drawing room comedy of the second is impossible to resolve. Penn comes closest to locking onto Cassavetes' quavery frequency, using all his craft and unimpeachable emotional integrity to salvage bathetic situations and contrived, florid dialogue. Wright Penn, whose character as written is selfish and unsympathetic, was much less successful in making me care about her fate. (Admittedly, part of my problem may have been the unfortunate stylistic likeness between her character in certain extreme moments and Laura Dern's broadly satiric title role in Citizen Ruth.) In their defense, though, both actors are facing the same insurmountable handicap; their roles could more accurately be described as constructs someone's idealized images of stormy proletarian passion than as real flesh and blood humans. Stanton, as Eddie's sidekick, Shorty, and Travolta are both sly and ingratiating, but their functions are subsidiary to the garbled, unconvincing narrative. In essence, the artistic failure of She's So Lovely is traceable to a single, supremely ironic fact: For a story by a writer with so much professed faith in the power of truth to bubble up out of apparent chaos, there's hardly anything here that feels recognizably true.
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