‘Found’ Points to a Healing Heart
Elinor Lipman’s novel idea not lost on director/star Helen Hunt
May 15, 2008 – Michael Elkin, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Helen Hunt’s hunt for the holy gal has paid off; her wholly impressive directorial debut, “Then She Found Me,” is a real find.
A gem of Jewish geography, “Found” is a cinematic cartographer’s conquest of the conscience and soul, in which an observant aging Jewish woman (actress Hunt’s April) observes life passing her by before a parade of problems that promise to send her reeling off the end of the earth.
Lucky for her the earth’s not flat; April’s been flattened enough by a failed marriage and the inconceivable conceit of approaching 40 without a pregnant pause.
Until now …
Based on Elinor Lipman’s lovely 1990 debut novel, “Found Me” finds the author in a wonderful place: The award-winning novelist of nine tomes — and a college prof — proffers a a contemporary Jane Austen prowess that places her atop a list of literary descendants in more than name only.
“Had I known,” she says with a breezy kibitz, “I would have changed my last name to my married name,” notes the wife of Robert Austin.
This “second daughter in an exceedingly functional family” need not worry; Lipman can name her own game these days. And when it comes to game, well, she’s always been center court.
“Yes, I was the roving guard,” she makes a point of stressing roving, “on Lowell [Mass.] Hebrew Community Center’s basketball team,” she acknowledges of her hometown team. “I wasn’t very tall and I wasn’t a high scorer, but stealing the ball was my specialty.”
She’s got game now, but stealing the limelight isn’t her bag — or basket; she is delighted to watch Hunt hit the three-pointers with Hollywood in this softly subtle and satisfying film about self-identity and baby booms that go bust in infertile fields of dreams.
No time for a time-out; Lipman is busily bustling between Borders and other bookstores for signings, a sign of the times that precedes her newfound film fame.
But giving birth to the film was as much a struggle for star Hunt as her character April’s abject attempts at finding fecundity in an unfocused life. It took the actress 10 years to go from option to opportunity to see it on screen; for the author, it was even worse, not being versed in the pit of problems that is a devilish development hell in Hollywood.
Indeed, another actress had her thumbprints on an adaptation for so long, “Found Me” almost got lost amid contract complexities before finding its way to the multiplex, where it now flexes its newfound muscles.
All Lipman will say about the journey from Sigourney Weaver’s hold on the book rights to her successful successor is this: “I feel blessed the day Helen Hunt got the project,” the author says of the auteur.
There isn’t a day that goes by without a dayenu by Lipman, 57, a Brandeis University alum who took a college course in “Beginning Fiction” that began it all so many years back.
And if April’s showers of problems turn into a monsoon of missteps in “Found Me,” she weathers the problems by having a Jewish head on her shoulders — albeit one filled with second-guessing sechel.
Not that April adopts a laissez-faire lay-it-on-me attitude. Part of her problem is pinning her hopes for the future on opening up the past, feeling the need to find her birth mother right after the death of her adoptive mom.
Better than Bette Midler — born to play Bernice, the birth mom — you can’t get for such a part that parts the waters with panache. “My friends said that when they read the book [when it first came out], they pictured Bette Midler in the role,” says Lipman.
The Divine Miss M — as in mishugah mom? Midler is Oscar-worthy as a TV chat-show host with a chit to redeem: She wants more than a guest appearance in her newfound daughter’s life. But who knew booking a baby would be part of the call sheet?
Call her a fan of the film, says Lipman of herself. Mere lip service from an interested party? More than that; a fat, juicy kiss on the lips of a script that veers somewhat from the novel — “There was no opening wedding,” says the author of the chupah hoopla that begins the movie — but “is very true to the feeling of April and certainly Bernice.”
Indeed, when it comes to the rites and rituals of Judaism, “Found Me” gets it right, its moral compass of a conscience committed to pointing heavenly. “The movie is even more Jewish than my book.”
And if the novel idea that is “Found Me” hits home, it finds a welcome mat put out for it by the author, adopted herself — her adored parents are Holocaust survivors — and who adapted the feeling of being “the eternal outsider” into a warm and wonderful book.
Hunt sought out the same haimische hot points for the picture. “Helen wanted the Jewishness so much to be there in the movie, layering it, showing how much April was loved.”
Most beloved of all is April’s ethnic appeal. But … Helen Hunt … Jewish?
As Hunt’s character, the very non-Jewish Jamie, in the much-missed TV series “Mad About You,” retorted when talking of having a relative in Israel: “Could happen.”
Indeed, the hunt for real mishpacah turns up Jewish roots: The actress’s father, Gordon, an actor and coach, is Jewish.
“And from the minute the movie opens — and you see them (April and Matthew Broderick as her husband) under the canopy — you’re immediately immersed in her Jewishness,” says the author.
Will Hollywood get its licks in with Lipman’s l’chaim? After so many best-sellers, Lipman thought it best to watch the action from her seat in the audience: Hollywood wasn’t popping to butter her up with popcorn promises of done deals.
“I wondered if Hollywood would ever come through,” says Lipman. “It seems they made every schmattah comedy but mine.”
From rags to riches: Do they see things differently now? “Helen Hunt has changed their mind.”
But nothing at this point can change Lipman’s mind about updating her quietly absorbing romantic rejoinder to those who adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward life.
Her prose doesn’t follow a prosaic path. “I was at this book-signing and someone asked me, ‘How’s April?’ I was so touched. I said she’s fine and that she’s happy … and pregnant.”
Pause. “But that was in 1992, and, really, I don’t see the story going beyond the page.”
No epilogues; Lipman’s in forward motion, busy, she says, “turning each page in life.”
In store for the story that is her career is more writing, more speeches, more … dreaming. “This has really not just been a dream, but dreams,” she says of her accolade-filled accomplishments that include academic acclaim.
As the movie opens wide, Lipman is wide open to a future in film, although she concedes, calming herself with a kin ahora, “we’ll see where it all goes.”
Any doubt where Lipman’s GPS is leading her these days? Going to the movies? Most likely, that’s where you’ll find her, at a “Found Me” screening.
“I’ve seen it five times!” she says excitedly, “and I’ve been able to sneak in and see the ending eight times.”
Ah, stealing into a movie theater unnoticed. Somehow, her basketball teammates from Lowell Hebrew Community Center must always have known their roving guard’s future was in good hands.