Screenwriter Neal Jimenez has found the lighter side of life in a rehab ward

AFTER THE PAIN, LAUGHTER

May 28, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

When an interviewer stumbles, Neal Jimenez is merciful.

"Let me help you," he'll say and neatly answer the question you were groping toward, somehow unable to fit the words into proper order.

The words usually are among the most frightening in the language and among the most difficult to confront directly: Crippled. Paralyzed. Wheelchair.

He discusses them casually. He laughs about them.

"It just seems so matter of fact to me," he says.

The words he doesn't want to hear are: Heroic. Courageous. Triumphant.

"Oh, that stuff," he says, waving it away. "Yeah, well. You just do what you have to do."

What Neal Jimenez had to do was learn how to live again, how to go on when a life that seemed so rich with promise was snatched away from him in a freak accident.

He was one of Hollywood's most promising and successful young scriptwriters.

Then, the next day, he was a guy in a wheelchair.

And now he's again one of Hollywood's most successful scriptwriters. And he's a director.

He wrote and co-directed "The Waterdance," which opens tomorrow at the Rotunda. It's one of those rare miracles of sensibility: a movie about disabled men who learn to love themselves and each other. They learn to survive the crushing bitterness and their new limitations. They learn to have a sex life. They learn to laugh.

"I guess my gift," he says, "is for seeing the humor in dark situations."

Thus the first astonishment of "The Waterdance" is how funny it is: an acerbic young writer in the first flush of success, played by Eric Stoltz, who wakes up in the immobilizing brace that signifies a broken neck, realizes it's the first day of the rest of his life, and it stinks. But instead of screaming in outrage, he expresses his pain in humor.

The brotherhood of the wheelchair

Soon he's among others denied the use of their legs, a brotherhood of the wheelchair, locked together in a L.A. rehab ward.

There's Bloss, played by William Forsythe, a biker whose mind dances with hostility and fantasies of a million dollar lawsuit. There's Raymond, played by Wesley Snipes, who had once been, he admits, "a bad man," but now wants nothing more than what he can't have: to be the father of his daughter and the husband of his wife.

Clearly these characters are a far stretch from the usual sanitized martyred archetypes of the cinema of ordeal and triumph. They're just people, seething with flaws and angers. Even Stoltz's character has flashes of sheer hostility and pain as he lashes out or wields the considerable weapon of his wit to fend off the ostensibly caring world.

"We didn't want to play on the audience's pity," says Jimenez.

It's no surprise that the career and the name of the character Stoltz plays -- Joel Garcia -- echoes exactly Neal Jimenez's own career and name.

"Of course it's loosely autobiographical, based on what I went through myself. You are dealt this hand and you have to move ahead. That's what I wanted to show. And to show that the different sense of humor is an inescapable part of the movie. I've always had this humor."

Jimenez, now 32, had scored big with a script he'd written while still in UCLA film school, "River's Edge," a black comedy about teen-agers confronted with a murder who are so morally destitute they spend a long weekend trying to determine what to do. He got a film credit on "For the Boys" and "Where the River Runs Black."

Then, one day, out hiking, he fell onto some rocks and woke up in a rehabilitation ward.

With his film, "I wanted to pull back the curtain" on the rehabilitation ward, he says.

Another remarkable aspect to the film is its sensuality. The men are haunted by dreams of a sex life they can't have any more. Joel, for example, is engulfed in a passionate affair

with a married woman (Helen Hunt). The movie is surprisingly erotic as it chronicles Joel's attempts to find new methods of satisfaction for both himself and his partner.

"I went through something similar," Jimenez says. "It seemed so matter of fact to me that it never seemed we were doing something out of the ordinary."

"The movie is erotic because in Joel's new body, he has to deal with the visual rather than the tactile."

Jimenez co-directed with a UCLA film school buddy, Michael Steinberg.

"I had no reluctance to take on the job; in fact, it was my idea to

co-direct. I don't think I had any more doubts than any first-time director. Being 'disabled' [the term he prefers] really had nothing to do with it."

Now he's working on a screenplay for Universal based on Russell Banks' novel, "The Sweet Hereafter."

And looking for a new movie to direct.

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