Today, in conjunction with Entertainment Weekly’s 20th anniversary, I’m kicking off a semi-regular series of columns in which I look back, every few weeks, at some of the movies I reviewed for EW two decades ago. (I’ll peg each column to the week, 20 years before, that the review appeared.) I’m intensely eager to see how those movies play now – whether they hold up, feel dated, look as fresh as they did the day they came out, or maybe, in some cases, even fresher. And I want to do the same thing with the reviews I wrote. I want to talk about what those pieces got right, what they got wrong, when they captured the essence of a movie in a way that still holds true, and when they didn’t quite express what I now feel.
This may sound like a slightly self-indulgent exercise, and maybe it is, but I assure you that it comes from a place of genuine, open-eyed curiosity. Like any other obsessed movie buff, I’m addicted to watching, and re-watching, movies from the past, and not just because it’s rewarding – and such a blast – to revisit the films I love. One of the most fascinating aspects of going back in cinematic time is seeing the ways that a lot of movies change over time. What was once wildly, anarchically hilarious may now come off as tame; what once struck you as a conventional soap opera may now seem richly crafted and elegantly honest. Over and over, I’ve observed that the “flaws” that may have marred an otherwise powerful movie tend to evaporate over time, so that they seem less intrusive or, quite often, not like flaws at all – more like radical, ugly-duckling virtues that one simply had to get used to. The real fascination, of course, is that in virtually every case, the movie hasn’t changed at all, not a single frame of it. What has changed is our world, our pop culture, ourselves.
As time has gone by, I’m also captivated by the fact that the phrase “old movie” now applies to things made in the 1980s. (The films of the ’70s, in all their freewheeling boldness, have been so absorbed into the cultural bloodstream that they no longer seem innovative; they seem like the new ground-level classicism.) And that makes 1990, the first year of EW’s existence, a terrific lens through which to look at an era that now appears to be on the other side of a divide. It was pre-Internet, pre-triumph-of-CGI, pre-all-comic-book-popcorn-all-the-time. The independent film revolution, which was just getting under way, was still figuring out whether it was going to be a game-changer or another earnest art blip. In general, movies hadn’t fully settled into the stratified consumer categories in which we now tend to lump them.
But they were starting to, and one of the things that I hope to discover is how a number of the films back then, both good and bad, helped to set the tone for the cinematic landscape today. I hope you’ll join me, starting with this column, on my periodic movie journeys back to 20 years ago, when America, and even Hollywood, seemed like a more innocent place. Even if it wasn’t.
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Here’s the first sentence that I ever wrote in an EW review:
“Men Don’t Leave is an exhilarating contradiction: a happy movie about depression.”
Well, I just watched Men Don’t Leave again (the first time I’ve seen it since then), and I think that I mostly got that right – it is a happy movie about depression, and that makes the film a resonant, at times even artful, contradiction. Twenty years later, it still gave me a lump in the throat. If I could go back in time, though, I do think that I would change the word “exhilarating.” It just doesn’t feel right to describe a movie in which Jessica Lange plays a mother of two boys whose husband suddenly dies, leaving the three of them in debt, out of sorts, and in search of what made them a family. Quite honestly, looking back at this review, I think that it was me who was exhilarated to have found a movie I liked this much for my very first piece in the debut issue of EW.
I was so exhilarated that I gave it a grade of straight A. Which may have been just a little generous. Still, I don’t think I was too far off. Men Don’t Leave was the second feature directed by Paul Brickman, after Risky Business (1983), and though it made very little impact at the time, and is now a film that hardly anyone remembers, it’s a pretty damn good weeper. Here’s a bit of what I said:
“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.”
I more or less stand by that. What’s amazing to me, in hindsight, is that by the time Men Don’t Leave came out, it seemed as if Jessica Lange had been around forever. She was in her early 40s, and playing a widow who falls apart, you could feel that she had already entered that “older,” post-movie star place that the Hollywood food chain reserves for great actresses who’ve committed the unpardonable crime of no longer looking like college students. The weird thing is, Lange had made her big sex-symbol debut, in the 1976 remake of King Kong, a mere 14 years before. My God, the mercilessness of the movie industry! In Men Don’t Leave, she gives a powerful performance, and she’s still gorgeous. Maybe it’s a sign of hope that Julia Roberts became a star, in Pretty Woman, just one month after this movie’s release – and 20 years later, that star is still in full flower.
Here are a few fun tidbits about Men Don’t Leave. Thomas Newman’s musical score, which I praised for its “trancelike emotionalism,” sounds, in hindsight, like the very first of those percolating American Beauty strange-wonder-of-family-life mood suites. It’s a delight to see Kathy Bates (so svelte you do a double take), Joan Cusack (adorable), and Chris O’Donnell (hasn’t changed a bit) in some of their earliest – and still best – performances. The future ace indie actor Kevin Corrigan, looking all of 16, shows up as a porny purveyor of stolen electronics components. And Arliss Howard, who went on to have not much of an acting career but did marry Debra Winger (not a bad consolation, I’d say), plays Lange’s New Age musician suitor, who I described as “a latter-day hippie completely at ease with his own tender nature (he might almost have been beamed in from northern California),” and also as “completely winning.” I stand by the first description, but this is one character who now seems a little trapped in time. He’s winning, all right, but also so sincere that he’s a little cloying.
So what movies, including ones that we may not remember, were you watching 20 years ago? Has anyone besides me ever seen Men Don’t Leave? And if so, what did you think of it?