Men Don’t Leave is an exhilarating contradiction: a happy movie about depression. A wonderfully sly and original domestic weeper, it’s the first picture Paul Brickman has directed since Risky Business (1983), his daringly salacious yet finally glib teen fantasy. Whatever he has been up to the past six years (rejecting scripts, apparently), the break seems to have matured him; he’s become a much richer filmmaker. In Men Don’t Leave, Brickman gazes at his characters with a mixture of compassion and pure delight-even when their hearts are breaking, they tickle him.
The opening scenes with the Macauleys, a boisterous clan living in a verdant suburb of Baltimore, make the very notion of a happy family seem an exotic spectacle (which, of course, it is). As honeyed light pours through the windows, Beth and John Macauley (Jessica Lange and Tom Mason) rise and playfully make love. At the breakfast table, they’re joined by their two sons — Matt (Charlie Korsmo), who stares expectantly out of large doleful eyes, and Chris (Chris O’Donnell), an exuberant 17-year-old who says good-bye to his mother with a quick, affectionate ”Later, creator!” After a decade of righteously sarcastic teen flicks, it’s a relief — almost a revelation — to encounter a hip yet contented movie family, with parents and kids seen on the same side of the fence.
Then, just as we’re drawn into this cozy domestic idyll, the spell is broken. John, a contractor, is summoned to a building site and killed in an explosion. At the hospital, Beth wanders the halls in shock, her existence shattered.
In form, Men Don’t Leave is a conventional therapeutic soaper about how a newly widowed mother and her two kids learn to get on with their lives. The movie’s hook is that there’s more to the matter than overcoming loss. With Dad, their cornerstone, suddenly gone, Beth and the kids are no longer an emotionally coherent unit. They have to grow into different people to become a family again. Brickman devotes equal time to each of their stories — it’s a three-headed coming-of-age film. The sorrow is always there under the surface, yet the movie is also lyrical and rapturously funny, with surprise temptations sprung on the characters like enchanted jokes.
Discovering she’s $63,000 in debt, Beth decides to sell the house and move the family into Baltimore. She gets a job as assistant manager of a yuppie grocery store and meets Charles (Arliss Howard), a preternaturally gentle musician who seems to incarnate the term ”sensitive male.” Yet Beth, still floating in despair, can’t quite connect with him. Quietly, defiantly, she takes to her bed. Her depression is presented with a kind of wry detachment, and it will ring true for anyone who’s ever spent a weekend hiding under the covers. Before long, Beth’s family — the only thing she cares about — begins to drift apart, with both kids finding the spiritual equivalent of alternative families.
Little Matt, who misses his father most, goes through the time-honored prepubescent ritual of befriending a bad kid at school. Meanwhile, Chris finds unexpected hormonal bliss in the arms of the radiology technician downstairs, a weirdly matter-of-fact space cadet (Joan Cusack) who starts turning into his surrogate mom.
In his homegrown American way, Brickman believes in the director as mood spinner. He uses the beautiful, melancholy synth score (by Thomas Newman) for a trancelike emotionalism, and nothing in the film unfolds in quite the way you expect. That’s the key to its evanescent charm — it’s about a world alive with hidden possibilities. Brickman’s style doesn’t announce itself. It’s there in the dreamy precision of his observational eye — in the impassioned harangues between Beth and Chris, where anger is really the sorrow that won’t show itself; in the hilarious moment when Matt’s schoolyard chum offers his friendship by slicing a Milk Dud in half with a switchblade; and in the way a simple meet-cute scene between Beth and Charles becomes a shimmering comic epiphany, with Beth dropping the vegetables she’s delivering onto the floor as Charles and his ensemble churn out their roiling New Age cacophony.
Wearing flat orange hair, Jessica Lange acts without a trace of the inspirational righteousness that has sometimes marred her portrayal of ”ordinary” women. Her Beth is sad yet radiantly sane — a housewife who loves her life deeply and can’t deal with the chasm that’s opened up in it. Newcomer Chris O’Donnell may, at first, remind you of half a dozen teen thespians named Corey. But don’t be fooled by his Beverly Hills High veneer: There’s a smart, vulnerable actor beneath that coiffed brush cut and baby skin.
As Jody, the seductress from Mars, snaggle-toothed Joan Cusack gives a crack deadpan performance. She’s a goofy-sexy comedienne who steals every scene she’s in. And Arliss Howard, with his long hair and slit-eyed, man-in-the-moon face, makes Charles’ Zen recessiveness completely winning. The character is a latter-day hippie completely at ease with his own tender nature (he might almost have been beamed in from northern California), and he’s never more attractive than when he’s sitting in with a polka band, singing the ”ee-eye-ee-eye-o” choruses of the ”Cafe Polka.”
Brickman is the rare mainstream filmmaker who’s able to empathize with everyone on screen — even the dislikable characters, such as Beth’s abrasive, narcissistic boss (Kathy Bates). That’s what keeps the movie’s point-of-view shifting and elusive. Brickman also has a sentimental-poetic streak. Yet even when he resorts to a device like having Beth take a redemptive balloon ride, the moment is so rhythmically right that the scene soars anyway.
Men Don’t Leave is rooted in the pain of sudden loss, yet it touches on universal feelings of familial trauma. It could just as well have been a divorce movie as a death-in-the-family movie. The film makes us see that, with Dad gone, the Macauleys had no choice but to break off and pursue private adventures. They had to move beyond one another to reassemble into a family — only now, it’s a freer and savvier one, less cocoon than emotional way station. The movie is really about the pleasure and the sadness of growing up; that’s why its tears don’t feel cheap. The last word goes to Matt, who tells us that he loves and needs his family for primal comfort, to feel ”saved.” Men Don’t Leave is a moving tribute to the bonds that shape us all. A