Review: ‘Normal Life’

A true story about how a middle-class couple crosses over the line from a so-called normal existence into a life of crime, "Normal Life" hasn't quite been able to translate its raw elements into fully formed drama. A thoughtful attempt to analyze a failed aspect of the American Dream, this fiction is highlighted by a compelling, even brazen performance by Ashley Judd as a woman beyond her own or anyone else's control.

A true story about how a young middle-class couple crosses over the line from a so-called normal existence into a life of crime, “Normal Life” hasn’t quite been able to translate its diverse raw elements into fully formed drama. A thoughtful attempt to analyze a failed aspect of the American Dream, this shot at cinema-verite-like fiction is highlighted by a compelling, even brazen performance by Ashley Judd as a woman beyond her own or anyone else’s control. John McNaughton’s new picture admirably brings the crime-and-violence cycle back to reality, but Fine Line will be hard-pressed to carve out a major niche for a film whose major components are so familiar at this point.

Set in the characterless Chicago suburbs near O’Hare Airport, the action begins abruptly with an attempted getaway in which a young man is arrested and his female accomplice appears close to apprehension. Jumping back two years, pic effectively introduces the man, Chris Anderson (Luke Perry), sweetly coming to the aid of the woman, Pam (Judd), in a bar after she’s bloodied her hand in the course of an argument.

Chris, who’s a good-looking, straight-arrow rookie cop, and the sexy Pam, who works nights in a high-tech plant, hook up at once, and they initially seem like a promising match; he could use a little loosening up from her fearless, impetuous ways, while she could benefit from the grounding and security he’s sure to provide.

Early on, however, she goes ballistic when he playfully calls her crazy, which he doesn’t realize might be a hint that she really is crazy. Despite numerous warnings that Pam is a big bag of trouble, they marry and begin assuming the trappings of a respectable, middle-class lifestyle.

At heart, however, Pam remains a biker chick, riding her chopper around and spending her free time swilling booze and smoking weed. She can’t cook, overspends on credit cards and, in one fit of dementia, cuts up her torso with a knife. When her father-in-law dies, she turns up late at the funeral on Rollerblades, which would probably be the limit for most men.

But not for Chris. Tolerating all this and more from his spacy, willfully irresponsible wife, he gets himself fired from the police force, and a new job as a security guard barely makes a dent in their enormous debts.

Finally, in a deranged fulfillment of his need to properly provide for his wife, Chris secretly begins pulling bank robberies. He does so well that he’s bought a new house and other luxuries before Pam figures out what her man is up to.

Thrilled with his new line of work, Pam insists upon joining him, which threatens the clean and efficient system he’s worked out. With enough money socked away to go straight and open a bookstore, Chris insists upon quitting, whereupon Pam moves out and tells him the marriage is over. Once again, he has his chance to leave well enough alone, but he relents, leading to the fateful job briefly sketched in the prologue.

From “Gun Crazy” on, the crime genre brims with femme fatales who lure their men down the road to ruin. This one is bracingly different in that the woman is driven by overwhelming, self-destructive impulses that she knows make her damaged goods, while the man abandons good sense and morality out of his compulsion to do right by his wife.

The missing link here is why he is willing to follow her all the way to the bitter end. In most such stories, sex has a lot to do with it. But Chris and Pam’s sex life is bluntly presented as being not so hot, and nothing else, save perhaps Chris’ obstinate impulse to see things through, explains why he sticks by a woman who herself tells him he should leave.

With the significant help of Jean De Segonzac’s hovering, purposely untidy camerawork, McNaughton aims for the raw and the real in unraveling this painfully wrongheaded relationship. Screenwriters Peg Haller and Bob Schneider, who exhaustively researched the actual case, have created any number of riveting scenes of domestic discord, but the resulting impression is more akin to a clinical study than to a story that has been rethought and reshaped for dramatic purposes.

In a far cry from her enchantingly serene debut in “Ruby in Paradise,” Judd lets it all hang out here in a showy, gutsy, sometimes alarmingly visceral performance in which she lays her disturbed character bare both emotionally and physically. Perry is required to keep his feelings tucked in as the rock-like Chris and is hampered by the crucial motivational question mark, but still does a good job limning a decent young man who slowly loses his moorings.

Production values are modest and plain, in line with the deliberately mundane look sought for the background.

Normal Life

Production

A Fine Line Features release. Produced by Richard Maynard, John Saviano. Co-producer, Steven A. Jones. Directed by John McNaughton. Screenplay, Peg Haller, Bob Schneider.

Crew

Camera (Astro color), Jean De Segonzac; editor, Elena Maganini; production design, Rick Paul; set decoration, Nancy Fallace; costume design, Jacqueline St. Anne; sound, Curt Frisk; assistant director, Jeanne Caliendo. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (premiere), Jan. 26, 1996. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Pam Anderson - Ashley Judd
Chris Anderson - Luke Perry
Agent Parker - Bruce Young
Mike Anderson - Jim True
Eva - Dawn Maxey
Adele Anderson - Penelope Milford
Frank Anderson - Tom Towles
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