Writer-director Julia Hart (“Fast Color”) has seen more crime films than she can count, and she has concluded that these movies have a bad habit of underutilizing their female characters — the girlfriends and wives who get shunted to the side when the going gets tough. It’s bad form for reviews to quote from press notes, but this insight from Hart warrants repeating: “The moment the door closes in Diane Keaton’s face in ‘The Godfather.’ The moment Tuesday Weld gets in the car in ‘Thief,’” she explains. “I just always found myself wanting to follow the woman. … And since I never got to see that in those movies, I just decided to make that movie myself.”
“I’m Your Woman” features Rachel Brosnahan in the other side of a story that has often, but not always, focused on men. Except, the best examples of the genre do make room for the wives and the girlfriends. Consider Edie Falco in “The Sopranos,” who’s at least as rich a character as her husband, or Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas,” who falls for a gangster and whose slow conversion to bad gal is arguably the point of that film. Such well-balanced stories make these women not just beneficiaries of their husbands’ bad acts, but antiheroes in their own right.
There’s another solution, which is to make a film in which the woman isn’t just the “wife of,” but more proactive and accomplished than her male cohorts. “I’m Your Woman” star Brosnahan is best known for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which does exactly that, celebrating the above-and-beyond experience of a high achiever in a field traditionally dominated by men — in that case, stand-up comedy. Call it the Ginger Rogers approach, where unsung women are shown doing everything that men can, except “backwards and in high heels,” which lends itself to gender-blind casting. Why not make Ripley a woman in “Alien,” or cast the secret agent in “Salt” with Angelina Jolie?
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“I’m Your Woman” takes the opposite tack: Brosnahan’s character, Jean, isn’t exceptional. When Frankie Faison’s Art asks if she knows how to handle a gun, Jean shakes her head and says, “My husband wouldn’t even let me drive the car.” We don’t learn a lot about Brosnahan’s backstory in this film, but we’re meant to read between the lines and extrapolate from her behavior — as with Faison’s next piece of advice: “Listen, anyone can learn to shoot. The hard part is what you actually do when the time comes.” Much will depend on what Jean does in that moment, although there’s an awful lot of dead air before she draws her weapon.
Any protagonist can be compelling if written and performed as such, but unlike the wives of “Widows,” Jean is much too passive: a sheltered housewife with no practical skills for surviving on her own. After her husband’s latest robbery goes awry, she’s left to fend for herself and her infant child. Presumably, a similar case could be made for telling the film from baby Harry’s point of view: What will become of the boy when he grows up, once he discovers that his dad was a thief, his mother learned to shoot in order to protect him and — here’s the movie’s most unexpected detail — he was stolen from his birth parents?
In the film’s surreal opening scene, Eddie (Bill Heck, playing the suave, bell-bottomed lawbreaker such a movie would usually be about) comes home and presents his wife with a stolen kid. “It’s all worked out. He’s our baby,” he says, and Jean doesn’t seem to question it. She has grown accustomed to receiving outrageous gifts from her husband, like the tacky new fuchsia nightgown she wears in the opening scene. Jean seems to intuit that the fewer questions asked, the smoother her life will go, which is true, until she’s awakened by banging on her door in the middle of the night by one of Eddie’s associates. The man orders Jean to grab “her” infant and a satchel full of cash, and to meet up with someone named Cal (Arinzé Kene).
Cal is African American, which serves as another kind of statement, as in a scene where a police officer pulls them over to ensure that the white woman is safe. But how does Jean feel about this? If riding around with a Black man in the ’70s seems odd to cops — enough so that Hart makes a point of it — it would be nice to know Jean’s impressions. So charismatic in her Emmy-winning “Mrs. Maisel” role, Brosnahan is a blank in this one, going through the film stunned and inexpressive. “I’m Your Woman” proves weirdly disinterested in its characters’ psychology, focusing more on mood and atmosphere, which as far as production designer Gae S. Buckley is concerned, means “wallpaper.” This is the kind of movie where the most dynamic thing in every scene is the art direction, followed by the natty retro costumes (which Jean must have used the cash to buy, since she didn’t have time to pack), and only then comes the people.
Most of the film is spent waiting — waiting for the other criminals who want to kill Jean, or maybe they just want to ask where her husband is. Meanwhile, the most volatile action takes place off-screen. We know this because every now and then, someone explains that another character has been killed, allowing our imaginations to supply what must have been a lively action scene. Eventually, Hart will supply a car chase and check off the expectation we’ve had since Jean’s gun was introduced. In the interim, she practices cooking and stares at the walls — a regular Jeanne Dielman. What else is she supposed to do? She’s been instructed not to interact with anyone, and the consequences aren’t pretty when she disobeys the edict.
Great. This is like telling a war movie from inside a bunker where a housewife is holed up for days by herself while all the male soldiers are fighting on the front. Again, there are ways to make such a story compelling. But let’s not forget: To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must feature at least two women who talk about something other than a man — but that’s practically all that interests Jean, who squanders the arrival of co-star Marsha Stephanie Blake (better to leave her connection a surprise). To Hart’s earlier point, you may find yourself wanting to follow that woman. Really, the only thing Jean has going for her is that she’s a survivor, one who merely lives to tell her tale, while others see most of the action.