If Nick Cassavetes’ feature debut, “Unhook the Stars,” celebrated the acting grandeur of his mother, Gena Rowlands, his sophomore effort, “She’s So Lovely,” pays tribute to his father, iconoclastic director John Cassavetes, who wrote this film’s script. A seriocomic meditation on the various forms of love and madness, this slight, rather implausible romp lacks the profound ideas and rich subtext of Cassavetes pere’s more consequential oeuvre. A stellar cast, toplined by Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn and John Travolta, elevates the profile of a vastly uneven, only intermittently enjoyable film. Miramax should expect modest returns from viewers who may be motivated to see this curio item more as an homage to the late Cassavetes than for its own merits.
In the context of today’s cinema, “She’s So Lovely” is such an anomaly that the film’s texture and old-fashioned quality betray its 1970s origins. Twenty years ago, the triangle played by Penn, Wright Penn and Travolta would have been cast with Rowlands, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. The lead female character is clearly a facet of the “mad housewife” Rowlands played in Cassavetes’ best-known film, “A Woman Under the Influence.”
All of John Cassavetes’ prevalent themes are present in “She’s So Lovely,” a movie that belongs to his microscopic, brutally honest studies of relationships among husbands and wives, lovers and friends, individuals who love each other intensely but are incapable of connecting or expressing their feelings in an articulate manner. New film also displays Cassavetes’ romantic view of insanity — specifically, the fine line that separates those who are truly mentally ill from those who are so labeled and treated by society.
This time around, the central messy lives are those of a young working-class couple, Eddie (Penn) and his pregnant wife, Maureen (Wright Penn). In the first scene, Maureen is hysterically looking for her hubby, who has been missing for three days. That it’s not the first time he’s disappeared doesn’t make things easier. A couple of drinks with next-door neighbor Kiefer (James Gandolfini) lead to an attempted rape and a brutal beating that leave Maureen shattered and bruised.
Knowing of Eddie’s dangerously unstable temperament, Maureen avoids telling him the truth for as long as she can. When she does disclose the source of her bruises, he predictably loses control and goes on a wild spree that culminates in more fighting. Eddie accidentally shoots an officer and is put in a mental asylum.
Story jumps ahead 10 years to find Maureen happily married to Joey (Travolta) and the mother of three children, including Jeanie (Kelsey Mulrooney), the daughter Eddie fathered. Maureen’s quiet suburban life is interrupted when Eddie is released from the hospital and a meeting is arranged between the former couple, who have not kept in touch.
Travolta’s character brings much-needed edge and humor to this segment, which is brighter and considerably more entertaining than most of pic. Travolta is such a resourceful and naturally charming actor that the most profane and outrageous lines assume weight and credibility when he delivers them.
The best sequences in the film are peppered with droll banter: arguments about true love vs. compromised marriage, and heated disputes over the trio’s uncertain future. But the rushed ending, in which Eddie and Joey physically battle over Maureen, is neither dramatically convincing nor emotionally satisfying.
Writer John Cassavetes wants to show that there’s nothing like the purity of first love, but he doesn’t provide his triangle sufficient psychological motivation to ground their otherwise erratic behavior. The script feels incomplete, and is further marred by a missing third act and a lack of discernible point of view.
Visually, the movie is composed of two clearly divided acts. Mostly set at night, the first displays stylistic devices closely associated with Cassavetes pere: raw, dynamic staging, restless camera, mega-close-ups and self-indulgent acting. Mise-en-scene changes gears in the second half, which is marked by more fluid framing and smoother pacing, allowing the actors (and audience) to breathe.
Departing from previous roles, Wright Penn renders an emotionally intense but mannered performance that only sporadically hits the right tone. It’s hard to blame the enormously gifted Penn for his inconsistent portrayal, for the fault in his role resides in the writing. Still, Penn is very touching in a quiet asylum scene with Rowlands, and he enjoys wonderful rapport with Travolta in a number of scenes that show the two fathers to be more sympathetic to each other than they are willing to admit.
Other roles are minor but succinctly drawn, particularly that of Harry Dean Stanton, who delivers his lines in a cool, understated manner. Tech credits are pro across the board.