"She's So Lovely"

'She's So Lovely' is a ridiculously conceived, confusedly executed, morally repugnant film.

Published September 29, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

IF "SHE'S SO LOVELY" is not the most structurally flawed, ridiculously executed and generally boneheaded film I've ever seen, it comes pretty close. One begins to watch it with a kind of fascinated awe: What impossible psychological development will pop up next? How many gratuitous, head-scratching, scenery-chewing speeches can one actor deliver? What will be the next wrinkle in the dumb-ass, non-tracking, morally repugnant plot? How can one film possibly violate so many rudimentary artistic rules?

Where should one begin to list this movie's sins? Let's start with the story. A bottom-drawer effort by the late John Cassavetes (his son, Nick, directed), it basically aspires to make a Bukowski-like plot into a Hallmark Card. One would have thought that it might have occurred to someone that this cannot be done, that out-of-control, crazed, alcoholic, destructive criminals and deadbeats are not suitable subjects for syrupy, violin-playing comedic romances. But in post-Tarantino Hollywood, even brain-dead "abnormality" can pose as "challenging eccentricity" -- especially if you can ink a few "artistic," "offbeat" stars playing version 34B of their moldy personal mythologies.

So we have this low-life, boozing, brawling couple, Eddie (Sean Penn) and Maureen (Robin Wright Penn). Once again Penn heads straight for his default role of Sensitive Vinnie, complete with pimp spread collar, what-the-fuck-you-talkin'-about diction and orthodox New Jersey pompadour. Enough already, Sean -- we're bored with this grifter shit. Play a professor or sumpin'. You're slummin' heah. This Vinnie, however, is strictly from Mars. Eddie is a louse who packs heat, has no visible means of support and abandons his pathetic pregnant wife for days at a time, but he's supposed to be a brilliant, Neal Cassady-like louse, a guy who spouts poetic lines like "dancing makes your eyes alive instead of dead." Uh-huh. Lots of grifters talk like that, especially in Hollywood.

Maureen is a downtrodden party girl of dubious intelligence (her quasi-tramp status denoted by the heavy makeup rings under her eyes) who just adores Eddie and likes to hang with the nice Bukowski crowd (Harry Dean Stanton, blah blah) at the local bar. During one of Eddie's absences, she parties with a neighbor, a Hell's Angel-looking gentleman who ends up raping her. When awareness of this begins to penetrate Eddie's thick but strangely brilliant mind, he does what any normal, impossible, mythical Vinnie would do -- he goes insane in a way never before seen in human history! Yes, Eddie single-handedly creates a new category of mental illness, to appear in the psychiatric manuals next year: "Illogical, out-of-the-blue psychosis attended by violence and characterized by inexplicable sad, crushed-little-boy affect." Eddie's breakdown (he suddenly starts babbling about computers -- always a bad sign -- then shoots a mental health worker who has come to collar him) doesn't make sense, but it does give Penn an opportunity to cop some Quality Acting Time.

This is the coherent, well-constructed part of the movie -- after this, plausibility becomes an even greater issue.

Eddie is put in the loony bin, where he languishes for 10 years. During that time Maureen never once comes to see him or writes to him. That's because she has married Joey (John Travolta), an upstanding family man. They have three daughters -- one of them the baby she was carrying when Eddie went gaga, two of them their own. It's a nice bourgeois life, and Maureen looks way better without the black eyeliner, but there's one problem: She still loves Eddie. Actually, there's another, related, problem: Beneath her nice clothes and haircut, she's still basically brainless street trash who is as demented as Eddie -- otherwise, she wouldn't still carry a torch for the guy. What must the other soccer moms think of her?

And now we modulate into the heartwarming, morally disgusting ending! Eddie gets out. Maureen tells Joey she loves Eddie and is going to leave with him. Joey is pissed and confused, and delivers an affecting speech to his 9-year-old stepdaughter telling her how much he loves her. Travolta carries the scene with dignity, and it looks for a moment like he might offer some moral authority, some alternative to the film's silly, sentimental nihilism -- but then he too turns into a full-bore Vinnie from Mars. In the climactic scene, he invites Eddie and his old pal Shorty (Stanton) over to his house to get everything straightened out. Bad idea. Eddie (who magically goes from fairly severe psychotic to normal wisecracking tough guy in 15 minutes) and Shorty start boozing it up with Joey, Eddie's daughter gives Eddie a back rub, Joey gets uptight, 9-year-old stepdaughter asks for a beer, loving, responsible father Joey gives her one, loving 9-year-old stepdaughter starts arguing with him about Eddie, loving stepdad yells, "Shut up and drink your beer!" and pulls out a piece and starts waving it around and Harry Dean Stanton admonishes, "It's not that kind of evening."

And then Maureen leaves with Eddie, after trying to slash her wrists. Oh, the kids -- don't worry about them, she gave 'em all a nice tearful hug before leaving forever! And the syrupy, comedic, happy-ending music plays, and the whole wacky crew is reunited in the big trashed pimpmobile -- yay!

This movie isn't just stupid, it's offensive in its stupidity. The classic Hollywood love story may have been banal and treacly, but at least it observed some rudimentary moral decencies, made some attempt to tie up loose ends. Innocent people didn't get gratuitously hurt; unworthy people didn't triumph. And when they did, the writer and director would make it clear that their film was ambiguous -- a problem play, a black comedy.

Those genre rules were often stifling and formulaic -- who hasn't rooted for the bad guy to win, the deserving bridegroom to be beaten out by the sleazebag? But they exist for transcendent reasons, not just superficial make-nice ones. There's nothing wrong with works that deal with ugliness, even celebrate it. The most profoundly moral films may be the most disturbing. But when they trivialize ugliness, turn it into light, ironic comedy, make it nothing more than an occasion for throwaway style riffs, they become ugly themselves.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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