Thursday, February 4, 2010

Men Don't Leave

"Men Don't Leave" (Paul Brickman, 1990) More significant than what a film-maker produces after they win "Best Picture" is what they create after they've had enormous box-office success. "Men Don't Leave" is the film Paul Brickman made after the mega-successful "Risky Business," which made a star of Tom Cruise. An Americanized version of "La vie continue," written by Hollywood insider Barbara Benedek, it tells the story of the Macauley family (Jessica Lange, Chris O'Donnell, Charlie Korsmo), set adrift after the sudden death of the father, leaving them with debts and an unfinished house.

They pull up stakes and move from their idyllic (though incomplete) home in the woods to urban Baltimore, where the three must cope as best they can with their grief and their circumstances, grief not only for the father, around whom the family seemed to revolve, but also for the life that his death, scatters to the four (or, I should say the three) winds. The family fractures in their three different attempts to create a new life that resembles the old. Beth (Lange) takes on the father's all-controlling mode and goes to work at a bakery
with a monster-boss (Kathy Bates, right on the cusp of stardom in a tough, unsentimental role), son Chris (O'Donnell) tries to be the man of the house but is pulled away, beginning a relationship with an older nurse, Jody (Joan Cusack), and young Matt (Korsmo, showing what a natural, affecting actor he could be in the first role of his short career) takes to stealing VCR's to buy lottery tickets in an scheme to win enough money to try and buy the family's house back.

As a film, it is a complete turn-around from "Risky Business," which was cold, cynical, and shot with a clinical eye for composition. "Men Don't Leave," is warmer, more desperate, and feels more real despite some contrivances in plot—I'm not sure a hot air balloon ride could snap one out of a "stuck-in-bed" depression, but having taken one, I know that it couldn't hurt, putting into reality a perspective change that's cathartic. Brickman still manages to produce arresting images that grab your attention and produce an odd counter-point to the comedy. The film also benefits from a quirky, textured Thomas Newman score. I suppose what I like most about it is the view that catastrophes come and catastrophes go, but life—not the same life, but a life—does goes on and, however you approach it, standing still or expecting the world to change your circumstances for you is futile.

And the performances are spot on—sometimes frustrating, sometimes inexplicable—make the characters human beings and not a collection of personality ticks. My memories of the one time I saw it are vivid (it didn't last long in theaters and only was released to DVD in late 2009 through Warner Brothers Archives site), so it's on a short list of films I want to re-view to see if my first impressions have held up over time, or if the film merely touched my individual buttons. Jessica Lange says that more people talk to her about "Men Don't Leave" than any of her other films, so I suspect it's the former.

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