She's So Lovely

(Nick Cassavetes, USA/France, 1997)


These days, critics often receive the mind-boggling advice to review films the way an 'ordinary' or average moviegoer would see them. I will have to leave aside, for now, the necessary inquest into the reality-status of such a fearsome, common-denominator creature. But, in the case of She's So Lovely, I must admit that I came to the movie with a lot of heavy 'specialist' baggage.

She's So Lovely derives – it is hard to gauge how faithfully – from a script by the late John Cassavetes. It is directed by his son, Nick, and co-produced by its principal star, Sean Penn, who workshopped the script with Cassavetes senior over a decade previously. Gena Rowlands – who lit up virtually every film directed by John Cassavetes for almost twenty years – has a cameo role.

For some critics and filmmakers – maybe even a few average filmgoers as well – John Cassavetes is among the greatest writer-directors in world cinema history. Those who praise recent movies like Secrets & Lies (1996) or Nil by Mouth (1997) over such Cassavetes masterpieces as Faces (1968) or Love Streams (1984) betray their insensitivity to the truly radical and beautiful art that he so painstakingly fashioned.

Were Cassavetes fans expecting a miracle in hoping that She's So Lovely might revive the magical rigour, intensity and emotional truthfulness of his best works? It turns out to be a sadly disappointing, threadbare, largely uninspired piece. One strains to intuit, through the confused murk, what this project might once have amounted to.

For viewers unencumbered with such high expectations, perhaps the film may still deliver something unique and special. The acting is superb, and many of the central situations carry that wrenching combination of humour, tenderness and angst which was the Cassavetes trademark.

The story, although an intimate chamber drama, occurs in two blocks of time ten years apart (a typically disjunctive Cassavetes structure). Eddie (Penn) and Maureen (Robin Wright Penn) are embroiled in a wild and difficult love relationship. They smoke, drink, fight and talk at cross-purposes – Eddie at one point cries: "You can't understand my obscurity!" When Eddie loses all control and shoots a cop, he is put away for ten years under intensive psychiatric care.

Once back in the world – and quite unaware of the time that has passed – Eddie presumes he can simply return to Maureen. But in the interim she has had Eddie's child, and taken up with a more secure guy, Joey (John Travolta). The stage is set for a tragi-comic dinner party showdown in which everyone – particularly the children who run about underfoot – is sure to suffer. Family life, in John Cassavetes' films, is always an inextricable knot of joy and pain.

How did this project – a labour of love for all concerned – go so wrong? The tone too often falls into easy, knockabout farce. Jokey mannerisms sometimes take precedence over character complexities. Worst of all, the style of the filming is as flat as the dreariest telemovie – with none of the edgy dynamism that sharpened and deepened every moment in the Cassavetes classics.

Cassavetes fans would be better advised to look elsewhere for contemporary reincarnations of the Master – in the films of Abel Ferrara and Maurice Pialat, or those directed by Sean Penn, The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995). Perhaps the kindest thing to be said for She's So Lovely is that, in its intermittent flashes of compassion, energy and despair, it may serve to introduce some viewers to the unique screen world of John Cassavetes – that world in which (to quote Love Streams) "life is a series of suicides, promises broken, children smashed, whatever".

MORE Nick Cassavetes: John Q, The Notebook

MORE Penn: The Pledge

© Adrian Martin July 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search