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An introductory note explains that My Life So Far is a true story, which is useful information. This account of a crisis in a Scottish 10-year-old’s outlandish family contains several implausible episodes, but apparently they actually happened some 60 years ago to Denis Forman, who grew up to be a London arts executive and to write the memoir, Son of Adam, from which Simon Donald derived his script. Of course, if the filmmakers had conjured Forman’s childhood more convincingly, viewers wouldn’t have to keep reminding themselves, “It’s not only a movie.”
Although My Life So Far is modest in scope and theme, these aren’t just any filmmakers. This film marks the reunion of producer David Puttnam and director Hugh Hudson, both of whom seemed ready to remake corrupt Hollywood along nobler British lines after the success of Chariots of Fire. Puttnam and Hudson’s reputations have faded badly in the subsequent 18 years—which is probably why they decided to reunite for something too slight and whimsical to cause major expectations.
The hero (and narrator) of their tale is Fraser Pettigrew (Robert Norman), but the story turns on an outbreak of temporary insanity in Fraser’s father, Edward (Colin Firth), an eccentric inventor, Christian lay preacher, physical-fitness fanatic, and Beethoven apostle. Life is odd at Kiloran House, the Pettigrews’ dramatic Argyll estate, but Fraser’s amiable mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and stern but loving grandmother (Rosemary Harris) keep things under control until Eros shakes the homestead: First, Fraser discovers his late grandfather’s soft-porn library, where he learns such enigmatic words as “orgy,” “prostitute,” and “fellatio.” Then Uncle Morris (Malcolm McDowell) arrives with his new fiancee, lovely French cellist Heloise (Irene Jacob), who’s closer in age to Fraser than Morris—or Edward, who is dangerously smitten by the new arrival.
Since the script has its origins in a memoir rather than a well-made play, other things happen in a more or less random manner: A French aviator lands unexpectedly on the estate, Fraser keep spying a mysterious “hairy man,” Edward extols the virtues of asbestos and moss, the mansion’s staff shares horrifying rumors about what French people eat, the attire of Uncle Morris’ lesbian friends shocks the household, and there’s a nasty accident at a curling match. Still, the story centers on Heloise and her effect on Fraser and Edward, whose noble speeches on virtue are overpowered by the visitor’s charm and beauty. Heloise awakens not only Edward’s lust, but also his jealousy toward his brother-in-law, who Edward thinks will eventually inherit the estate and leave him and his family homeless. Given that Edward’s career as an inventor produces barely more income than it consumes, this is a legitimate anxiety.
Still, Edward’s conduct is so reprehensible that it repeatedly trips up a movie that tries to sustain a sweetly nostalgic tone on its dogged course to a happy ending. “Slowly, life got back to normal” is Fraser’s comment on his father’s misbehavior, but if this bygone domestic cataclysm can be so easily accepted, why even bother telling the story today?
One of the more inside jokes in Notting Hill is the notion of Julia Roberts playing an actress who would play a role in a sci-fi flick. Of course, the real actress—the real Julia—doesn’t take such parts. Roberts only makes movies about looove, movies in the mode of that little British charmer, Four Weddings and a Funeral. In fact, she’s released two of them this summer.
For those who haven’t already endured Runaway Bride, that assertion might be confusing. After all, Bride is the nonsequel sequel—the Hollywood equivalent of the nondenial denial—to Pretty Woman, the crowd-pleaser about a happy hooker who finds looove with a handsome, wealthy, but secretly lonely businessman. As you’ve surely heard, Bride reunites that movie’s stars, Roberts and Richard Gere, with director Garry Marshall and, perhaps for some karmic reason, bit player Hector Elizondo. The script, however, bears little resemblance to the quartet’s previous sex-worker romp. Instead, it might be titled Four Weddings and a Marriage.
As the title and trailer have already revealed, Roberts plays a character who has repeatedly fled the altar. Maggie Carpenter is a sensitive charmer with commitment problems who runs a hardware store in Hale, which is supposedly in Maryland but actually exists in some alternative universe where Sinclair Lewis never wrote Main Street and Sam Walton dedicated his life to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Named for a variety of peach, Hale is a generic small town with a few Free State add-ons—crabs, mostly, although the rolling terrain suggests a site far from the bay. (Some scenes were shot in Berlin, which is on the Eastern Shore, but most of the locations look like Blair Witch country.) Maggie lives in Hale with her father (an alcoholic, although the film can’t decide whether it cares about this subplot) and her grandmother (a dirty old lady, the sort of pointlessly crude characterization that seems inevitable in this, the Summer of Fart Flicks). Two of Maggie’s ex-fiances still live in town, as does Fiance No. 4, who’s about to realize that Maggie doesn’t want to marry him, either.
One of Maggie’s near-misses has escaped to Manhattan, where he runs into Ike Graham (Gere), who writes a Jimmy Breslin-like column for USA Today, a newspaper that scripters Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott seem to think is based in New York. Ike turns the guy’s rant into a column, using Maggie’s name without checking any of the facts. When it turns out that the ex’s tale is considerably exaggerated, Ike is canned by his boss (his ex-wife, no less). The firing was apparently inspired by the case of Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, although this dip into current events does nothing to make the film seem real.
Seeking to redeem himself, Ike heads to Hale to write a freelance hatchet job on Maggie for GQ. Here’s where the Four Weddings stuff begins: Quickly insinuating himself into the lives of the absurdly cooperative locals, Ike gets to view Maggie’s aborted nuptials on homemade videos. (All of them include angles and cuts that would have been impossible without multiple-camera coverage and some clairvoyance, but then no one would expect Marshall to respect the integrity of the medium.) As in Four Weddings, it soon becomes clear that the other weddings are simply leading to the only one that counts: Maggie and Ike’s.
Even stranger than the similarities to Four Weddings are the ones to that movie’s nonsequel sequel. As in Notting Hill, Maggie is a goddess who can have anything and anybody she wants, but somehow is unlucky in love. Both films also riff on the evils of the press: In Hill, Roberts’ character is victimized by unethical journalists and romanced by a man who pretends to be a reporter; in Bride, she’s romanced by a man who actually is an unethical reporter. And both movies require Roberts’ character, having hurt Mr. Right, to beg him to love her, a scene meant to be the chick-flick equivalent of an exploding asteroid.
McGibbon and Parriott have one twist of their own, although it probably came from a pop-psychology book. Maggie can’t get married not because anything is wrong with the grooms, but because there’s something wrong with her: She doesn’t really know who she is! She’s alone in her ignorance, however; Marshall signals every emotional shift with a telling oldie: With songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Maneater,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” cuing the action, dialogue is barely necessary. Besides, Roberts is just about the worst possible leading lady to embody Maggie’s character flaw: She only plays one role, after all, and the fact that she made in close succession two movies with such similar themes suggests that—on screen, at least—she knows exactly who she is. CP