She’s So Lovely

It’s been a long night for Maureen Quinn, a gawky, bruised blonde unblessed by the gods of glibness. Weariness, frustration, and a violent, inexpressible love for her husband, Eddie, overwhelm her, and she blurts out, “I wanna take beer bottles and smash them over people’s heads.” Eddie looks up at her, wonderment (if that’s possible) lighting up his eyes: “‘Kay.”

The love between Maureen (Robin Wright Penn) and Eddie (Sean Penn) is a risky and monumental thing in this cynical moviegoing age. If She’s So Lovely had been made by and with John Cassavetes (who wrote the story, or fable, as he calls it, for himself and wife Gena Rowlands), it would have been part of a world more at ease with such a raucous brand of marital devotion. But directed by their son, Nick, with all the delicacy he brought to last year’s Unhook the Stars, its very modernity is audacious. It isn’t the milieu that has changed—the lowlife world of phone-in-the-hallway apartments and seedy neighborhood bars—but the audience; in spite of its casual thug humor and bleak visuals, She’s So Lovely is unfashionably pro-passion and is a wilder, riskier movie as a result of its long dormancy.

Maureen and Eddie’s attachment isn’t as addictive as it is organic. When they’re apart, which is fairly often—Eddie goes on three-day leaves, and Maureen’s sense of direction isn’t too sure—they yearn for each other not with the avidity of addicts, but with the businesslike desperation of really hungry people who know they’ll eat again but want food right now.

When Eddie disappears on one of his benders, pregnant, restless Maureen calls all the usual places and, still at a loss, accepts a night of free booze and companionship with her weird, hulking neighbor, Kiefer (James Gandolfini). (Maureen’s inner alarm needs a new battery; no thinking girl would drink with this suspiciously amiable and insistent brute.) Kiefer beats her up and rapes her, but even when Eddie reappears—at a bar booth flanked by girls, calmly asking Maureen where she’s been—she won’t tell him what happened. Eddie has a dead face and a still body; his only truly animated feature is his rapt, glowing eyes. Maureen knows that he’s a psychopath in love, and she doesn’t want a death on her hands.

But over days of staying in drinking, going out dancing, and engaging in the minor cons that enable them to do such things (and smoking endless cigarettes they never seem to light; She’s So Lovely is a down fairy tale in which there’s always a lit cigarette in the princess’s mouth), Eddie grows curious. He doesn’t judge Maureen’s behavior toward others, just toward him. In his skewed but inflexible definition of love, there’s room for infidelity but none for lies. Lying makes him crazy.

Eddie goes berserk, drinking gallons of a cocktail too awful to describe (it’s blue) and letting loose a rant of rage and confusion, in which his own colorful, confident style mutates into a paranoid, apocalyptic, surreal monologue about clairvoyance, disease, and the computer that runs the world. “Do you love her?” he bellows desperately at a couple making out in a bar. It’s hypnotic without being showy, and so natural in its rhythms that it puts Mike Leigh’s Naked to shame. Finally, Eddie’s madness overtakes him. He shoots the wrong guy and gets sent up for 10 years of psychiatric observation.

She’s So Lovely is very top-heavy; this section, which could have served as a prologue in a shapelier film, takes up the bulk of the movie’s running time and leaves scant room for the audacious follow-up. After Eddie and Maureen are separated, the pace speeds up, necessarily, even though there’s much to explain as the couple careen crazily toward reconciliation.

The years in the psychiatric ward seem to crawl by for Eddie, who has been told (by Maureen, whose information isn’t the most reliable) that he could be out in three months. Befuddled, phlegmatic, and sporting a tangled mat of hair, the obviously still-unbalanced Eddie is sent out into the world, where he hooks up with his old friends Shorty and Georgie (Harry Dean Stanton and Debi Mazar) and makes a beeline for Maureen. He doesn’t think too hard about why she hasn’t written or visited in all that time.

It’s because she has remarried, to Joey (John Travolta), a big, dumb goon who thinks he’s clever. Joey’s only resemblance to Eddie is his possessiveness, although it takes a much more conventional form. Joey is tangentially mob-connected and much coarser than his big, pallid house and three well-groomed daughters (one not really his) indicate. What he can’t bear to face when taunting his wife about having picked her up out of the gutter is that he did so from the vantage point of a half-step above. Any sign that his marriage isn’t normal and loving threatens the façade that his business is normal and legal. Maureen claims she has never pretended to forget Eddie, even though she has made every outward change possible—the husband and house, a neat brunet bob, and knee-length skirts.

Hoping the usual bullying tactics will scare him off, Joey invites the just-released Eddie over (for dinner—it’s all he can think of). Both sides’ social skills are unsteady—when told he can “bring someone,” Eddie shows up with Shorty and Georgie and a bottle of wine, which he drinks in the car and then tells his host about. If Joey thought the psycho ex-con would be impressed out of abducting his wife, he was wrong. Eddie doesn’t even see the sweeping parking ellipse, laminated-wood wet bar, or Joey’s snappy suit; he looks right through Maureen’s new dark hair and demure style to the woman he loves. Eddie’s love has made him sane; it’s self-adjusting, like a drunkard’s luck. It’s the only rational thing in a topsy-turvy world and a mad piece of freedom amid more considered matches.

The ending of She’s So Lovely is no surprise—Cassavetes doesn’t try to wow us with twists—more of an inevitability. The script isn’t about how Eddie will win back his wife after she has fallen—the stifling shadow of the good life she inhabits is, in its way, a comedown—but about how such an attachment manifests itself along the way. Penn’s acting is so assured it’s almost scary; he gets better, more complete and less gaudy, with each new role, and Wright Penn is a lovely foil for him. Eddie listens closely to his fierce sparrow when she speaks, and he laughs at her jokes. When she takes a tumble, he helps her up and never tells her to wear lower heels.

There are some rough spots and sour notes—an unnecessary sequence at a posh hairdresser’s where the just-released Eddie gets fawned over and manhandled by cooing poseurs just dying to style him for the low cost of nothing. And the ending jars, because clearly someone tweaked the title a bit along the way, although neither version of it should stand in as the emotional rationale for the whole story. The presence of Stanton signals that there’s fake hipness in the air—he hasn’t turned in a new performance in 20 years, and he looks as if he got Keith Richards’ old blood. Perhaps Cassavetes Sr. looked to the honesty and improvisation of jazz for directorial inspiration, but Nick doesn’t need any weak echoes of that version of cool. A tip of the hat to Dad’s style is a sweet gesture, but a superfluous one. Nick needs to stop fooling with film history and make some of his own.CP