In the first deviation from the Mary McGarry Morris novel on which it’s based, A Dangerous Woman opens with a drunken, angry woman smashing her car into the porch of the house where her husband is visiting his lover. The film’s not named for the driver, however; she’s a minor character. The dangerous one, ironically, is the adulteress’s niece, Martha Horgan, a truth-telling, emotionally stunted woman in her early 30s. She is, the locals say, a “screwball,” which is about as psychological as either the book or the movie wants to get.
Deglamorized with baggy clothes and thick glasses, Debra Winger is the childlike Martha, who lives uneasily with her rich, glamorous, bitter aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey), the long-suffering mistress of a local politician. In the film’s opening scenes, Martha’s contentedly constricted life falls apart. She loses her job at the local dry cleaner and, more importantly, her con nection to her “best friend” Birdy (Chloe Webb), who also works there; the culprit is Getso (John Sayles regular David Strathairn), Birdy’s thuggish boyfriend, who covers his own thefts by accusing Martha of stealing from the till.
Alone with nothing much to do, the crush-prone Martha is invigorated by the arrival of a new “best friend,” Colin Mackey (Gabriel Byrne), the hard-drinking carpenter Frances hires to fix the porch. Martha and Mack, the latter quite drunk, spend a few minutes in bed together, and she’s in love. He soon turns his interest to Frances, though when Martha is discovered to be pregnant he’s conscientious enough to admit (eventually) that he’s the father. By then, however, another confrontation with Getso has left Martha in a lot of trouble.
The script, by producer Naomi Foner, works the usual Hollywood changes on Morris’ scenario—the story moved from Vermont to Southern California, the events condensed, the lead characters (except for Getso, of course) niced up, the ending happier. After Morris has left her characters hanging, Foner continues, devising the rough equivalent of a happy family for them.
Yet, despite Foner’s sweetening, the effect of both novel and film is similar. The former is denser and subtler, but both depend, unsatisfyingly, on the plight of the unfortunate, uncomprehending Martha. Though her painful awkwardness is well documented, her purpose as protagonist never comes into focus. She seems the victim of her creators as much as her tormentors, a bit of pathetic flotsam no more compelling than a victimized heroine plucked from wire-service copy by any TV movie.
Director Stephen Gyllenhaal, Foner’s spouse, avoids the showy gambits he employed in last year’s Waterland, keeping things as unaffected as the small-town setting. The cast, which includes such ensemble veterans as Webb and Strathairn, is equally careful not to overplay the material. It’s that material, though, that’s the problem. Portraying the impaired is a venerable Hollywood formula for nobility (although the poster for Woman is careful to make Winger look more comely than she actually does in the film), but neither book nor film succeeds in making Martha tragic. The true irony of A Dangerous Woman‘s title is that this isn’t a risky tale at all; it’s just a high-toned weepie that replaces the unstained woman-child of 19th-century melodrama with a politically acceptable contemporary equivalent.
Monkey Zetterland is a person, not a place, but Inside Monkey Zetterland does introduce an oddball demimonde, a little scrap of LA so determinedly wacky that it might as well be the setting for a sitcom. Most of the characters live in one block of the city’s Fairfax district, and some plot complications even turn, just as in Three’s Company, on the comic interaction between Monkey (Steven Antin) and his zany downstairs neighbors.
Of course, those neighbors are a bulimic doomsayer (Martha Plimpton) and her gay-terrorist (and apparently Australian) husband (Rupert Everett). Also adding to Monkey’s would-be-comic distress are his mother and landlady, a high-strung soap-opera actress (Katherine Helmond); the haircutter brother (Tate Donovan) that Mom keeps trying to turn into an actor; the lesbian sister (Patricia Arquette) who moves in with him after her lover (Sofia Coppola) gets pregnant; and the ramblin’-man dad (Bo Hopkins) who appears unexpectedly (with his motorcycle and parrot) around Thanksgiving time. The thing could be called Zetterland Family Values.
Among the other recognizable (if less than stellar) names are Sandra Bernhard (as the obsessive, foot-Xeroxing, Danielle Steel-worshipping neighbor Monkey meets in the library), Debi Mazar (as his ever-departing ex-girlfriend), and Ricki Lake (as the demented, pistol-packing fan of Monkey’s mom). Still, the guy’s problems are mostly in his head, a thesis underscored by having him submit to therapy (with a shrink played by Lance Loud) as a gallery of medical students listens.
Monkey’s an inactive actor living on TV-movie residual checks as he toils on his true love, a script about how the big oil, auto, and tire companies conspired to destroy LA’s interurban rail system. Since this was the subtext of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it’s not exactly a fresh movie idea; occasional voice-overs from the script-in-progress reveal that it stinks anyway.
Where Monkey’s script is a hokey melodrama, the one provided by writer/co-producer Antin is studiously absurdist. As if to prove that LA can be as offbeat as New York, he and director Jefery Levy (“currently the youngest professor at USC School of Cinema/Television,” boasts the press kit) pile up strange, inexplicable incidents; the number that depend on Monkey’s dog, though, once again suggests a sitcom sensibility.
Network TV execs may not be ready for Plimpton’s vomiting scenes or for putting a Bulgarian women’s choir on the soundtrack, but they’d surely get the gibes at Antin’s vestigially Jewish, marginally show-biz world: The pregnant lesbian is interested in “underwater birthing with dolphins,” Mom’s fear that her soap-opera character will end up in a freezer proves well grounded, while Monkey’s brother proudly reveals of some celebrity that “I know the guy who does his eyebrows.” That’s a distant connection to the real movie biz, but it’s as close as Inside Monkey Zetterland ever gets.