One of the worst and emptiest clichés that gets bandied around the film industry these days is the notion that every movie, whether drama or comedy, has to have heart – meaning that it must convey some sense of the essential goodness of people, and of the world.
Yet there are many fine films that are utterly heartless, misanthropic or nihilistic. The unassuming Mr Wrong, the first cinema vehicle for TV star Ellen DeGeneres, is definitely one of them.
Mr Wrong is one of those movies that was sneaked into theatres without much fanfare, beyond a few commercials on TV. For whatever reason, its distributor decided not to preview it to critics – in stark contrast to most high-profile art films, which are vigorously pedalled to reviewers months before they publicly appear.
I am always on the lookout for unheralded films such as Mr Wrong. Sometimes it is screamingly evident, five minutes in, why these movies were undersold – because they are rotten, and the distributor is simply trying to squeeze a few bucks out of a brief theatrical season before sending them straight to video. But just as often it is the case that these unsung films are difficult properties – hard to market because their content or tone is somehow odd and disconcerting.
Mr Wrong is certainly disconcerting. It arrives after a string of successful romantic comedies (While You Were Sleeping , French Kiss , Before Sunrise ), and begins in the same sunny, bittersweet vein. Martha (DeGeneres) is 31, works hard in the TV industry, and is single. When Martha's younger sister marries, everyone in the family exerts unsubtle pressure on Martha to find Mr Right and get hitched.
At the office there is a sweet, young guy who adores her. But, one night at a bar jukebox, Martha fortuitously meets the man of her wildest dreams, Whitman (Bill Pullman). She is quickly swept off her feet. Whitman is sensitive, attentive, romantic, sexy, not to mention mysteriously wealthy. But, before long, he turns out to be the greatest nightmare of Martha's life.
The first indications of Whitman's innate monstrosity are slight – such as a poor taste in pop music – so Martha duly fights down her doubts. When, during their first morning after, he recites to Martha his very own poetry, the audience is in stitches as soon as he utters the word "cerebellum".
However, the moment that Martha urges Whitman to "be himself", he goes completely berserk. He steals, lies and brilliantly manipulates everyone close to Martha (including the private detective she hires to discourage Whitman's advances). And close behind him is a vicious, white trash ex-girlfriend Inga (Joan Cusack).
Mr Wrong is an intensely paranoid, almost Gothic black comedy. Well before the end, the mayhem of love-gone-wrong spins into veritable film noir territory, with the action relocated from an average American city to a lawless Mexican town. But, no matter how insane or outrageous the plot becomes, the film (directed by the talented Nick Castle – The Last Starfighter , Tap ) maintains its vital link with a proudly dark, brittle, neurotic tradition in romantic comedy – a tradition that includes underrated, little-known movies such as Armyan Bernstein's Cross My Heart (1987).
These dysfunctional romantic comedies, as we might call them, plumb the terror of intimacy – the fear that every other person on the planet is an unfathomable alien. Mr Wrong never shirks from or sweetens this premise. And it has the perfect cast for the job. DeGeneres is not as loopy and free here as in the TV show Ellen, but she conveys superbly the deep, restless anxiety of a 'new woman' wrestling with that scary dark continent known as man.
It's Pullman, however, who has the best role. His Whitman is the most indelible screen nut-case since De Niro's Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1983): part American Psycho, part New Age dreamer, and part eternal boy who respects nobody's personal space – first signalled by his over-fondness for a good New Age hug.
As a film, Mr Wrong has its fair share of problems. The ending is uninspired, and the running homages to classic movies – even, at the denouement, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – are rather lumpy. But after so many largely saccharine, sentimental romances here is a 'woman's comedy' that exists (as Judith Williamson once put it) "within that space between giggling and despair". And that's a space too rarely visited by popular cinema.
© Adrian Martin April 1996