As if to compensate for all the abused and emotionally intense women that his mother, Gena Rowlands, has played in the films of his father (John Cassavetes), Nick Cassavetes has constructed for her a star vehicle that brandishes her warmth, sweetness and huge range as one of the most accomplished American actresses working today. Occupying the emotional center of “Unhook the Stars,” Rowlands plays an aging but still beautiful widow who suddenly realizes that she can’t rely on anyone but herself. While Rowlands is the main reason to see this endearing film, Cassavetes’ directorial debut is so charming and full of compassion that, with the right handling, it should easily cross over the gates of the indie milieu into the mainstream.
While the underlying premise of “Unhook the Stars” may not be entirely new, the sweet-natured tale, co-written by Cassavetes and Helen Caldwell, is so well structured and accomplished that it projects an aura of freshness. Defying current fashions of both indie and commercial cinema, Cassavetes has made a movie that seems old-fashioned but is not.
Rowlands plays Mildred, a financially secure widow whose husband has left her a comfortable suburban house that she now shares with her rebellious teenage daughter, Ann Mary Margaret (Moira Kelly). As the story begins, Mildred is delivering newspapers on her daughter’s paper route because Ann Mary is too lazy to get out of bed at the crack of dawn. A loving, generous mother, Mildred gives the impression of a woman who all her life has been accommodating, trying to please each member of her family: hubby, son Ethan (David Sherrill) and daughter.
After yet another loud argument with her mother, Ann Mary takes off with her b.f., leaving Mildred all alone in the oversize house. But unexpected companyarrives in the person of neighbor Monica (Marisa Tomei), a working-class mom whose physically abusive husband, Frankie (David Thornton), eventually leaves her and their 6-year-old son, J.J. (Jake Lloyd). Mildred immediately takes a liking to J.J., soon becoming his surrogate mother, picking him up from kindergarten, baby-sitting whenever necessary.
Though Mildred and Monica are vastly different women, slowly a friendship evolves between them, building to a climax and one of the film’s many highlights when Monica takes Mildred out to a pub, where she meets Big Tommy (Gerard Depardieu), a French-Canadian truck driver. Cassavetes shows a measure of good taste in his discreet handling of Big Tommy’s infatuation with the older Mildred. A gentleman, Big Tommy escorts Mildred home in his truck, never imposing himself on her physically. In the hands of these two fetching thesps, their two or three scenes together are priceless.
As helmer and co-scripter, Cassavetes provides a lighter, more benevolent view of suburban life and lonely widows than have such American films as Douglas Sirk’s melodrama “All That Heaven Allows.” Mildred is alone, but she’s not isolated or miserable she accepts her new situation with grace, dignity and pride, all perfectly embodied by Rowlands.
It’s a pleasure to observe the relaxed but controlled tempo of a film that has little plot and is almost entirely driven by character and dialogue. Cassavetes takes his time in delineating the shifting relationships between Mildred and her children, and especially between Mildred and J.J. As soon as Frankie reconciles with Monica and returns home, J.J. switches his allegiance to him, neglecting Mildred, who’s sad but perfectly understanding.
Though pic quietly explores an intricate web of relationships, its perspective is by no means softhearted or schmaltzy. When a repentant Ann Mary returns home and asks her mother to take her back, Mildred informs her matter-of-factly that she has sold the house and is leaving town. Cassavetes also tackles maturely and delicately such cultural taboos as the notion that parents may not like their children equally: Mildred has no qualms about favoring her son, a married yuppie in San Francisco, over her daughter.
Consciously or unconsciously, helmer refrains from using the famous stylistic devices of his father’s aggressively eccentric oeuvre. There are no mega-closeups and no grueling emotional realism, the characters are properly introduced, and there’s respect for the smoothness of conventional narrative.
Though Rowlands is dominating, pic is not a one-woman show, and she is marvelously supported by the entire ensemble. Tomei is perfectly cast as a sexy, decent, uneducated woman determined to give her son a better life than she has had. Kelly, as the unsettled daughter; Sherrill, as the sensitive son; and Thornton, as the errant husband, excel in smaller but finely etched roles.
Rowlands has shown a sensitivity to children in previous films, most notably “Gloria,” in which she played a mobster’s mistress on the lam with a neighbor boy, and here she helps to elicit a natural performance from newcomer Lloyd, who doesn’t seem to be acting at all.
Production designer Phedon Papamichael Sr. (who worked extensively with Cassavetes pere), lenser Phedon Papamichael, editor Petra Von Oelffen and the rest of the crew have contributed to the making of a handsome, extremely enjoyable film.