The best supporting actress Oscar that Marisa Tomei won for My Cousin Vinnie in 1992 turned out to be a curse instead of a boon. Unfounded rumors circulated that presenter Jack Palance decided to read out Tomei's name as a joke. Fans of the other nominees couldn't comprehend how a sparkling new comedian could best the likes of Joan Plowright, Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson.
If fate is just, as it is in every romance that comes out these days, Happy Accidents should retire Tomei's status as part of a show-biz urban legend and establish her once and for all as one of our most versatile and engaging performers.
In the nine years since Vinnie, Tomei has never landed the lead in a hit - and her new picture, Happy Accidents, opening today at the Charles, may be too fluky and unchic to become an arthouse favorite. Yet Tomei has demonstrated her range and conviction every time out, and in her small role in last year's What Women Want, she stole the show and left many of us wondering why Mel Gibson preferred Helen Hunt.
In Happy Accidents, a small-scale charmer, Tomei plays a New York Everywoman - smart, avid and confused. She and the equally talented Vincent D'Onofrio, as her warm, unconventional lover, conjure the organic chemistry that big-studio budgets can't buy.
As the title indicates, this is one more amorous comedy that relies on momentous coincidence to prove that a true love is true. But unlike, say, Serendipity, Happy Accidents gives the actors tricky emotions to play with while destiny toys with their characters.
Tomei, a teacher, is an inveterate "enabler" who has gone through a string of calamitous relationships with neurotic screw-ups. (They include an artist who wonders, when she breaks up with him, whether she rejects him or his work.)
She's on a park bench reading Anais Nin's Delta of Venus when D'Onofrio strikes up a conversation. He tags along to her English-as-a-Second-Language class and knocks her out with his mastery of all her students' first languages. Even her parents think he's refreshingly sweet and uncomplicated, as long as they overlook certain quirks, like his fear of mom's Jack Russell terrier. They don't know what Tomei does - D'Onofrio claims to be a "back-traveler" from the year 2470.
D'Onofrio doesn't swerve from his story and Tomei can't break it. This situation provides the writer-director, Brad Anderson, with the chance to wring a series of increasingly funny and barbed variations on the theme of trust:
Should Tomei believe D'Onofrio, or would that mean playing the enabler once again? Should she try to "cure" him with the help of her shrink (Holland Taylor), or would that eradicate his seductive power? And what would be so wrong about playing along with him even if he spouts mind-blowing fantasies? Is it any worse than the bed-games of her best friend's boyfriend, who demands to be addressed between the sheets as '80s "Brat Pack" veteran Anthony Michael Hall?
Tomei does more than create a woman elastic enough to encompass all those alternatives; she expresses the allure of that kind of pliancy, whether she's bouncing merrily with D'Onofrio across her apartment floor in his back-traveler's idea of a mad dance, or bending to him like a yearning willow as they walk on the beach. All at once, Tomei lets us know what her character is feeling, what she wants to feel, and what she thinks she ought to be feeling.
D'Onofrio does his own inspired layering, whether we buy his time-hopping tale or not. Playing a character who is either phenomenally direct or masterfully evasive, he supplies the evidence for both interpretations without forgetting the basis of this comedy-drama. No matter where he comes from, this big, beaming fellow radiates affection for Tomei with every inch of his padded, rumpled frame.
The sci-fi melodrama and the romantic comedy mesh imperfectly; the final reel feels forced and rushed. But the actors never lose their joint glow. At the center of every sequence, they anchor the movie the way John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale weren't able to in Serendipity.
Their happy casting makes us suspend our disbelief in happy accidents.
Starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio
Directed by Brad Anderson
Rated R (adult language)
Released by IFC
Running time 110 minutes
Sun score ***