Cigarettes may be de rigueur in movies these days, but the kind of boozing, lurching, falling-apart characters favored by the late filmmaker John Cassavetes — think Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, and, especially, A Woman Under the Influence — are out of fashion. Behavioral style has something to do with it, true: The libertine ’70s have turned into the herbal ’90s. And the swaggering, self-indulgent pieces Cassavetes specialized in, full of pickled emotions and damaged guys spouting dented poetry, were the product of a repertory company of cronies, none of them kids, all fluent in Cassavetes-speak, all moving in atonal concert.
Re-creating that ensemble buzz and that alcoholically fueled soul scraping is an almost impossible task, but in She’s So Lovely (Miramax), director Nick Cassavetes, working from an unproduced script by his old man (who died in 1989), gives it a ballsy go. The story covers signature territory: Pregnant Maureen (Robin Wright Penn) is crazy in love with her husband, Eddie (Sean Penn), who’s often just plain crazy and apt to disappear for days; during one such absence, Maureen boozes with a scuzzy neighbor (James Gandolfini) who roughs her up, causing the returning Eddie to go first nuts, then violent, and then into a mental institution.
Ten years pass, during which Maureen marries Joey (John Travolta), with whom she has two girls in addition to Eddie’s daughter. Joey is as grounded and prosaic as Eddie is loopy poetic. But he’s no Eddie, ya know? And when the first husband is sprung from the hospital and comes to reclaim his beloved from her stable, middle-class existence, what’s a mother to do?
It would be a challenge for any director, let alone the Son of the Dead Legend, to unhook the stars twinkling so preciously in such Cassavetian dialogue as ”Dancing sets up memories for when we get old” or ”I appreciate you looking at me with soft eyes.” For the most part, Cassavetes fils, differentiating himself from pere’s shooting style, keeps the camera work squarer than the script, really almost sitcom standard. This is understandable: It would be bogus (and thankless) to ape a look from the past. But Nick C’s flattened style accentuates the decade discord of John C’s premise. This is a woman, after all, who would consider leaving her children (not to mention John Travolta) for a disheveled flake. So she’d bloody well better be able to prove just why two men think she’s so darn lovely.
And this — for some reasons that aren’t her fault as well as some that are — Robin Wright Penn does not do. Oh, she screeches and weeps, all right. But there is no core to her characterization, either on the page or in her projection. The actress wobbles around like a sweet girl in high heels. It’s hard to believe her Maureen even has three kids.
It is, on the other hand, easy to believe that Eddie loves her, because Wright Penn’s real-life husband burns with intensity enough for two. Sean Penn (in a role that won him Best Actor this year at Cannes) is the movie’s one natural Cassavetes Man, and his performance is so full of heart and talent that when he tells his wife ”I’d cut off my arms for you,” the hyperbole reads like a statement of fact. Travolta, meanwhile — well, he may not be a born Cassavetian (he’s too finished and too dazzling a persona), but the actor is in such a golden zone these days that his work, always generous, appears at once solid and airborne.
Travolta appears an hour into She’s So Lovely and effortlessly ticks the clock over to his time. This, of course, is probably not what Cassavetes and the Penns intended. But when you’re making your way through the dirty beer glasses and stinky cigarette butts of a John Cassavetes script, it’s a boon to have John Travolta stopping in. He’s the loveliest. B