There’s something terribly askew and misleading in the very title “When a Man Loves a Woman.” This contempo tale of alcoholism does have an underlying tenderness, but its core is sober and gut-wrenching. It’s a first-class production, accentuated by fine performances and an unflinching script. Though likely to earn high critical praise, the film is more aptly a succes d’estime than 150-proof box office potent.
The presence of charismatic actors is an asset, but audiences have been cool toward this particular subject matter of late regardless of cast, quality or emotional wallop.
Michael (Andy Garcia) and Alice (Meg Ryan) Green are the seeming paradigm of the yuppie lifestyle. He’s an airplane pilot and she’s a high school guidance counselor. They have a snug little San Francisco home and two well-adjusted pre-teen girls.
But the cracks in the veneer soon become obvious. Alice cannot face a social situation without at least one drink too many. After a near-fatal boating incident on a Mexican vacation, she promises to reform — meaning only that she will hide her drinking problem more ferociously and that Michael will continue to believe in Band-Aid treatment.
The scenario is classic and predictable and has rarely been shown onscreen with such candor or precision. Alice is lucky. She has an accident in the shower that finally wakes everyone up and sends her packing to a detox center.
The ambition of the Ronald Bass-Al Franken screenplay is often staggering. It’s more a case study than a traditional three-act movie fable. The film takes on the logic of a bar crawl, veering toward the conventional only in Luis Mandoki’s direction and with some much appreciated excursions into levity.
Unlike such seminal works as “The Lost Weekend” and “The Days of Wine and Roses,” this new outing eschews the nightmarish look to convey its Dantean trek. The action takes place in broad daylight and is rather like a magic act in which an adept conjurer plays for a willing dupe.
Ryan has one of those roller-coaster roles that demands attention. Her character arc is the more obvious, beginning as the happy lush and going through a series of dark transitions before she’s able to stand on her own two feet. It’s a testament to her craft and wiles that she’s able to keep both viewer attention and sympathy.
An even greater challenge is Garcia’s part, as the unexpected villain of the piece. Superficially a caring and concerned partner, he’s nonetheless capable of inflicting enormous damage under the veil of good intentions.
He is glib, macho and self-centered. But his intentions (no matter what the effect) are understandable, though misguided. His transformation — more difficult to diagnose and treat — is therefore the more painful of the two.
Supporting roles are largely functional, with the exception of Tina Majorino as the couple’s older daughter. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lauren Tom play characters who elicit such bad traits as jealousy and violence from the principals.
Richard Bradford, in an uncredited role, has a nice turn as an angry recovering addict, and Ellen Burstyn is completely wasted as Ryan’s mother.
While the conclusion is too pat for all that has preceded it, anything more downbeat would be too devastating to contemplate. “When a Man Loves a Woman” is unquestionably ragged and, in this instance, that bolsters its integrity. Though a grueling experience, it is refreshing to see serious subject matter handled so deftly in a Hollywood production.