Alcoholism isn't cute, but Meg Ryan's movie about it sure is

May 13, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"When a Man Loves a Woman" wants to be about what happens when a woman loves a bottle, but it's really about what happens when a producer wants a hit.

What happens isn't pleasant, particularly if the bottle is filled with vodka, but the movie is filled with cuteness. For whatever the implications of its materials, the film is still a big Hollywood production, financed and released by Disney's grown-up Touchstone division -- and one feels the play of contradictory impulses all the way through it, the struggle between social realism and entertainment values.

Consider, for example, Meg Ryan as secret lush Alice Green, who tucks the potato juice in the linen closet and once was so inebriated she lost a daughter on a shopping trip. But Meg Ryan must be the most adorable creature on God's green earth. Try as it might, the camera can locate no angle into her face, no part of her body, no aspect of her physical being that is not absolutely delightful.

In Blake Edwards' corrosive "Days of Wine and Roses" all those years back, the equally adorable Lee Remick just gave it up: In a drunken state, she was an appalling creature, besotted and sodden, hair like Medusa's, makeup a swampy smear, the despair of her self-loathing radiating from her ruin like a mirage. When Ryan is drunk, by contrast, a little red blemish appears just above her left nostril and she giggles a bit louder. She's still adorable.

In fact, the movie's pictorialism is in constant conflict with its solemnity of topic. Ask anybody who knows: Alcoholism isn't this pretty.

The pictorialism is everywhere. Married to airline pilot Andy Garcia, and the mother of two adorable little girls, Ryan lives in an in-town San Francisco abode that's been decorated within an inch of its life. It's to die for! Secret movie law: Nobody lives in a banal tract house, nobody has bad or indifferent taste; they live instead in a display room at Bloomingdale's furniture department. A similar cheesy phoniness undercut producer Jon

Avnet's last film (he also directed that one), "Fried Green Tomatoes." It's as if Avnet just can't get to authentic; he's got to slather on the movie-hooey too.

The film occasionally bumbles onto some original ground in trying to find an unusual angle into the Lost Weekend business: It eventually sets up on a new fault line. It's not merely about Ryan's decline into alcoholism, but also her recovery after a spell in detox (only skimpily dramatized) and her difficult adjustment to sobriety. And it gets at some subtle men-women issues, heretofore unexplored. For example, the film makes it clear that though she is genetically inclined to alcoholism and that her mother has quietly wrecked her self-esteem, she is in some way subtly oppressed by her husband's easy competence, by his way of reducing each element to a problem and then solving it. Somehow . . . he's the villain because he can handle things. Interesting. Wrong, but interesting.

To its credit, it doesn't sentimentalize Ryan too much. It eventually sees through the transparency of the above position, and the self-indulgent way it blames the strong one in the relationship for his strength and exculpates the weak one. And it builds to her best moment as an actress -- when she gets up to address her AA meeting -- and unleashes a confession that finally confronts her demons and enables her to take responsibility for what she's caused.

But there are other deep irritants that have to do with the manipulative nature of the material. The two children are dispensed with when the plot calls for it, then yanked back in rather mercilessly and exploited. The younger one, Casey (Mae Whitman) is the spirit of comedy: She gets all the precious lines and comes off a little like Tum Tum in "3 Ninjas Kick Back." Jess (Tina Majorino) is the older and more tragic one: She gets slapped around; she gets to sob and choke and be victimized. But she's never a character so much as a kewpie doll who may be counted on to jerk tears from jerks when the emotions are otherwise thin.

"When a Man Loves a Woman" is certainly no day of wine or roses: it's more of a fried green potato of a movie.

"When a Man Loves a Woman"

Starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan

Directed by Luis Mandoki

Released by Touchstone

R-rated

** 1/2

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