BootLeg Betty

Knight At The Movies: Bette’s Best Role In Years!

Knight At The Movies
Then She Found Me
Richard Knight, Jr.
April 30, 2008

Helen Hunt’s directing debut gives Bette Midler (and herself) their best roles in years, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a familiar but funny gal pal flick

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With Then She Found Me Helen Hunt steps into rare company – she’s one of the few women to star and direct themselves in a movie. It’s a pleasure to report that Hunt’s directing debut is as assured and oddly compelling as the material upon which it’s based, the chick lit novel by Elinor Lipman. Like Hunt’s favorite acting tic this is a movie that squints every once in awhile, allowing you to contemplate the characters and leaving you with a wry smile once you’ve had a chance to mull it over. It also offers Hunt and her co-star Bette Midler their most satisfying parts in years.

Hunt plays April Epner a grade school teacher who as the movie gets going is sandbagged left and right by an avalanche of bad luck. Just as she’s decided she wants a baby her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) announces that he’s unhappy and is leaving their marriage, then April’s adopted mother dies. In the midst of dealing with the fallout of the end of her marriage she gets hit on by Frank (Colin Firth), the father of one of her young charges. But April is so upset about Ben walking out she barely takes notice.

Then April is confronted at school by Alan (out actor John Benjamin Hickey), who is the gay assistant for local talk show hostess Bernice Graves (Midler). Alan informs April that Bernice is her birth mother and would like to get to know her. Without much warning, Bernice, a woman used to having the way smoothed for her does her best to integrate herself into April’s life. Only April’s not quite sure what that life looks like or feels like anymore. Slowly, she begins to sort out the wheat from the chaff. April begins a tentative relationship with Frank that quickly heads toward the deep end while at the same time going up and down with Bernice. But when April discovers she’s pregnant, with either Frank or Ben the father, a whole new set of questions enters the equation.

It takes awhile to adjust to the almost somnambulant rhythm of the movie Hunt establishes at the outset, though it picks up along with April’s viewpoint. Hunt, whose mouth has pulled down like a basset hound, seems to be sleepwalking through the first half of the film and doesn’t do anything to draw the audience toward her. She is so thin and haggard in appearance that it’s like a badge of
honor. All these things are that much more endearing when April finally begins to reawaken to her new life. When Hunt finally smiles it’s as if the sun has broken through the clouds – the risky intention of both the actress and director pays off with patience.

Midler’s character is one of those compassionate, insufferable narcissists, always spouting stuff about “the lessons” to be learned from each and every experience but she’s essentially a control freak and it’s really all about her wants and needs. Bernice, who’s a sort of mini version of Oprah, only hears April when April absolutely insists on it. We see that as Bernice learns to follow April’s cues
and the relationship grows, Hickey the gay assistant is getting increasingly jealous (a potential subplot quickly dispensed with to no harm to the story). The movie, instead points Bernice’s character in a direction that wasn’t expected and Midler gets to bring a great deal of warmth and complexity to a role that could easily have denigrated into a caricature. She dials down her innate wattage just
enough to let us see there’s a not quite secure woman behind the celebrity.

Firth and Broderick do their usual expert work, each playing stock variations on themselves (Broderick is the grown up, irresistible school boy and Firth is funny and sexy at once – the personification of the middle aged dreamboat). Cameos by Janeane Garofolo, Tim Robbins, and Edie Falco as Bette’s talk show guests are a nice bonus. The only casting misfire is Salmon Rushdie as Hunt’s pediatrician – if only because his appearance in the movie is so unexpected and his identity as a “serious” author is so fixed in the mind that to see him in the minor role throws one temporarily out of the picture.

As Then She Found Me moves along it takes on some of the same sweet, loopy tone of Waitress and the story has a similar arc. It doesn’t have the lush, dreamy look of Waitress (or its sounds) but it felt just as satisfying and like that film I found it just about irresistible (but why didn’t they write a song for Midler to sing over the end credits? That would have put me over the edge). A recent New York Times story reported that the term “chick flick” has become in the mind of filmmakers a pejorative one; to apply it to a movie that focuses on female characters is a “no no” and that future films in the genre by Nora Ephron and others will be described and marketed in ways that will make them more palatable to wider audiences.

Well I don’t care what you call them as long as we get more movies like them – with Waitress and Then She Found Me for starters. Can I get a witness ladies and my fellow gay chick flick fanatics?

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