20 years ago today – When a Man Loves a Woman. (Film Review)

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There have been several top-notch films about alcoholism and there have been hundreds of terrible ones. When A Man Loves A Woman is one of the better ones, underrated even all these years later as it is being more appreciated for its depiction of the complications of sobriety after a person leaves rehab. We know now that sobriety doesn’t end alcoholism, and what needs to be faced once one is clean is what one drank to avoid. When a Man Loves a Woman is a film that deals, not only with an alcoholic, but her enabling husband and the toxicity the marriage absorbed with a drinker at the helm.

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Also interesting about When a Man Loves a Woman is its positioning in the career of Meg Ryan, an actor who made many films and yet was thought to be typecast as the original girl next door in romance comedies. Her first Romcom was the enormously famous and successful (and lets face it, brilliant) romance comedy When Harry Met Sally, a film that launched a contemporary version of the romance comedy, and established Meg Ryan as the queen of the genre. Over the next six years she was the female lead in nine films, four of which were romance comedies, but they happened to be Sleepless in Seattle, Joe Versus the Volcano, I.Q. and French Kiss. All the other roles were serious acting pieces, several of which, When a Man Loves a Woman included, she was the lead performance. However, by the end of the six-year period she was firmly ensconced as the queen of the romcom genre, while her superb performance in other films, such as The Doors and When a Man Loves a Woman were forgotten or ignored. In the next seven years, she starred in eleven films, Five were Rom Coms and six were other genres, but again, films such as In the Cut when she gave a great performance, she was downgraded by critics who claimed primarily that no one wanted to see America’s sweetheart in such a dark film that looked at females attraction to abusive males, and included a dark sexuality. In the cut remains a brilliant Jane Campion film, typically underrated by Americanised critics / audiences but adored outside of that closed off circle, a problem typical of Meg Ryan’s career. Like In the Cut, When a Man Loves a woman is a truly great performance from Ryan, voted down probably because critics wanted to see Meg Ryan falling over food trolley’s and faking orgasms in restaurants.

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Interestingly the film is co written by super Hollywood writer Rob Bass, one of the highest paid writers in Hollywood, and Al Franken and part of its strength is that it closely follows the experience of both protagonists. At the time the film was made, Bass was nursing an academy award he won for Rain Man, and Franken was writing comic pieces for SNL. They’re an unlikely duo, and yet they meet well in this film, properly developing the recovering alcoholic wife and the difficulties her husband has with discovering and recovering from his co-dependency. Her drunkenness and his nice-guy-help-out-routine was what brought them together in the first place. It’s a common story with people who make dramatic life changes, like giving up substance abuse or losing a lot of weight the new human being can’t relate to the spouse of the old marriage. In other famous alcoholic films, such as Leaving Las Vegas, Barfly or Days of Wine and Roses, the relationships are ruined before the alcohol is absent. When a Man loves a Woman doesn’t even supply a happy ending – it offers hope, but nothing else. If alcoholism is a disease of denial, then Bass and Franken include the denial of the affected sober also.

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Other clever aspects of the script include Alice’s job as a high school councilor, when she started to drink in high school and never stopped; Micheal’s absence because his job as a pilot coupled with his almost crippling (and very humiliating) perpetual assistance when he is there; we are witness to Alice’s rock bottom when she hits her child and falls through a plate of glass, but it is only in the closing speech of the film that we understand the full atrocities of what this mother did to her kids. Problems with the script include the unnatural beauty the lovely family of four continually exude. The closest Meg Ryan comes to looking hungover is a Kim Kardashian eyeliner smudge and her sobriety is supposedly emphasised by her lack of makeup. The lovely clothes, the beautiful home, the perfect nanny, the mind-blowing handsome husband are a problem in a film that is trying to be this serious, but it is worth remembering alcoholism was a huge (read fashionable) deal in 1994, and buzz phrases such as “disease”, “co-dependence” and “Enabler” were a new trend. A script this heavy could only hit main stream release if it used major stars and clothed them beautifully, Ryan’s trade mark stunning locks perfectly coiffed into submission. It probably only got made because the subject matter was fashionable and Hollywoodised to a degree. It is to the actors and film makers credit that the meat and bones of the piece were not sacrificed for popularity. That was left to a trendy wardrobe and a overattendant hairdresser. The rest of the film claims and stands by its awarded authenticity, and stands the test of time.

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