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My wife, Kathleen, tells a great story about the art history professor who taught her Art 101 course at Smith. During the second semester, as the subject-matter of modern art drew closer and closer, the professor would allude with increasing frequency to the most pivotal work of the Twentieth Century painting in the world, which was, in his view, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Week by week, he fanned a thrill of expectation in the students. Kathleen, at least, looked forward to the grand revelation that the slide of Demoiselles seemed certain to inspire. In the event, however, the sheer impressedness of his experience wilted the professor completely. He sighed; he moaned — he confessed: "This work is so pivotal that I cannot talk about it."
That's pretty much how I feel after seeing Then She Found Me for the first time. It may not be a pivotal movie, but I see what the professor was getting at: I wish that the fame that it so obviously deserves were already established, so that I could celebrate it in the way that fans of La Grande Illusion and Casablanca celebrate those very famous films.
From a sweet beginning — a prologue, really, in which April Epner, a teacher, marries a schlubby colleague (Matthew Broderick) and (in movie time) is almost immediately dumped by him — Then She Found Me works its way into gritty emotional territory without ever losing its sense of humor. The story, a riff on the proposition that, when life closes one door, it opens another, moves through its semi-predictable phases with the agility of a chimp on a jungle gym. Ms Hunt is too intelligent to linger in familiar expository swamps, and in short order April loses her adoptive mother (Lynn Cohen) to illness, establishes a romantic rapport with Frank, the father of one of her students (Colin Firth), and meets her birth mother, a successful talk-show host called Bernice Graves (Bette Midler). April's one wish, expressed in every squint of Ms Hunt's eloquent eyes, is that the world would slow down so that she could catch up, but it is not granted.
Meanwhile, the film soaks up the humanity of the remarkable cast's extraordinary performances. Each one of the four principals is a noted comedian (in the French sense), and they all have well-defined film personalities. Ms Hunt, to start with, can be counted on to be both quizzically aloof and the only person who really gets what's going on: when she's not surprised by the general dimness of her fellow mortals, she's impatient with it. Colin Firth is the shy gentlemen whom party girls like Bridget Jones take a while to warm up to. Matthew Broderick has grown into an American Everyman, taken for granted and put upon by those around him; upon occasion (You Can Count on Me), he gives sleaziness an Everyman twist. As for Bette Midler, no one has ever figured out how to marry the disappointment of the jaded matron with the fresh sparkle of the girl who pops out of the cake. Ms Hunt builds on these typologies but bends them to the breaking point. By forging a tight ensemble with her three very gifted co-stars, none of whom has worked with the others, she and her camera find new things to work with — such as the kindled stoicism of Mr Firth's face. Mr Firth has always looked more or less stoic, but he has never seemed so lively, even when doing nothing at all. This might sound like the sort of thing that would be of interest only to someone who followed acting careers, but it's not: the raw freshness of the performances is self-evidently striking. As in real life, the characters upstage the story.
On top of that, Then She Found Me addresses the reality of adoption in a completely up-to-date way, showing it to be not merely an "issue" but a prism that refracts our ideas about every kind of intimacy. People who haven't given adoption any thought since the good old days of the adoption racket may be in for a shock. Two of most common "truisms" about adoption are exposed as flatly untrue: Adoptive parents do not, in fact, love adopted children in the same way that they love their own natural offspring, and mothers who give up their children for adoption are not relieved of their sense of guilt and loss by the notion that their children are better off in adoptive homes. (Sometimes the children aren't better off.) The real miracle is that Then She Found Me handles these matters with such adroit panache that Ms Midler can sink into Bernice's naked, if repentant, opportunism.
The chances that gregarious Bette Midler and austere Helen Hunt would manifest that chemistry without which no drama flourishes forth might seem so remote that some viewers may fail to see it until a climactic scene. Bernice, like most of Ms Midler's characters, generates a fair amount of bluster but is never altogether certain that she's going to get away with it. But when the agnostic Bernice insists that the religious April offer up a prayer before undergoing an elaborate fertilization procedure, bluster and hedging are nowhere in sight. The mother's coerciveness and the daughter's reluctance are physical almost to the point of violence, but both characters are too well-meaning for there to be anything ugly about the scene, and when they are through shaking one another, something amazing has happened at the movies.
Then She Found Me is probably not a pivotal movie. That would be too much to hope for. But I believe that it will be one of those films that achieves greatness by educating its audience, by teaching viewers how to enjoy the glamorous surface of a four-star movie set in New York City while seeing through it to the pain and mystification that all of us are familiar with in ourselves, but not sufficiently in one another. This may take some time, because we are not all as intelligent as the filmmaker. (May 2006)
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