In her feature film directorial debut, actress Helen Hunt (TV’s Mad About You) delivers a solid, thoughtful drama marked by terrific performances from a perfectly cast circle of friends.
Elementary school teacher April Epner (Hunt) makes her mother happy–finally–by getting married at age 39 to nice Jewish boy, Ben Green (Matthew Broderick, (The Producers). April has always keenly felt different from her brother Freddy (Ben Shankman, Angels in America) because she was adopted and he wasn’t. She’s obsessed with becoming pregnant and having a biological child. Unfortunately, the closest April gets to motherhood is taking care of her infantile new husband.
After a few months of marriage, getting older and no more pregnant, April has one of those horrendous mercury-in-retrograde days. Ben confesses his infidelity and walks out.-April’s beloved adopted mother dies. Single Dad, Frank (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), who is gorgeous, kind, funny and happens to have an instantaneous ability to tune in to her emotional state, bumps into her. As if all this isn’t enough to stress her out, a messenger delivers a bombshell–April’s biological mother found her and wants to meet.
Said biological mother turns out to be Bernice Graves, a well-known local TV talk show host, played by Bette Midler (The Stepford Wives). Up to this point, the movie has been painfully earnest and plodding, but as soon as Midler enters, it takes off into high gear. Bernice is a gabby, gooey, self-absorbed diva, determined to establish a relationship with April, whether April wants to or not. Alas, Bernice is also a fantastical liar, feeding April one tall tale after another about the circumstances of her conception and adoption. Midler gives the role radiant doses of charm and pathos and we are swept up in the dynamics between the two women.
Believing Irene and Bernice are genetically attached does indeed require a suspension of disbelief. Bernice is wild and effervescent. April is dull and fearful. Bernice at age 63 sparkles with youthful energy. April, approaching 40, bears the burden of the world on her shoulders. Actor/director Hunt, deciding I guess to take the brave road of artistic veracity, makes her character April so realistic that I for one wish she hadn’t. April dresses like a hippie frump, wears no make-up so she’s eternally haggard and frazzled and prematurely wrinkled, and most awful, her hair is limp and unwashed. Frankly, Hunt’s appearance is so unappealing, it distanced me totally from her character. But everyone else was so watchable that the movie on balance ended up being quite enjoyable.
As if a new mother and a new boyfriend weren’t enough to handle, April discovers she’s pregnant with her old husband’s child. Everyone thinks it’s wonderful and the men in her life take turns accompanying her to the doctor’s office to check out the ultrasound photos. Salman Rushdie (author of Satanic Verses) makes his acting debut as the befuddled doctor and there are some pleasant cameos by an assortment of Hunt’s actor buddies. For some reason, possibly known only to Elinor Lipman who wrote the popular novel on which the movie is based, April makes some very bad decisions, sending her relationship with Frank into a tailspin. One of the nicest aspects of the movie is seeing Firth in a role that gives him a chance to play a full spectrum of emotions. The result is that this star known for his romantic turns becomes even more romantic as an ordinary guy trying to make it through the night.
Since I found Hunt’s appearance so off-putting, I advise seeing this otherwise entertaining flick first on DVD, where the small screen may be more favorable to Hunt’s unattractive persona than the big screen was.