Embracing the Melodrama #45: Inventing the Abbotts (dir by Pat O’Connor)


First released in 1997, Inventing the Abbotts is a small town, romantic melodrama about two families in the 1950s.  One family is poor.  One family is rich.  As you can probably guess, each is fated to determine the destiny of the other.

Decades ago, Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton) and Holt were business partners.  However, after Lloyd had an affair with Holt’s wife (Kathy Baker), their friendship ended.  Lloyd eventually becomes the richest man in town and has three beautiful daughters: dutiful Alice (Joanna Going), wild Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), and virginal Pam (Liv Tyler).  Holt is long since dead and his two sons, Jacey (Billy Crudup) and Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) live next door to the Abbotts.  While the bitter Jacey is obsessed with the Abbott family and ends up pursuing both Eleanor and the married Alice, Doug claims not to care about the Abbotts.  However, despite his claimed indifference, Doug soon finds himself falling in love with Pam.  Will Doug and Pam be together or will Lloyd succeed in keeping them apart?

To be honest, Inventing the Abbotts is not a particularly good film.  It moves way too slowly, Doug and Jacey frequently swtich personalities whenever the plot demands it, the story is way too predictable, the voice over narration is way too obvious, and Jennifer Connelly’s character leaves the film way too early.  This is one of those films that is determined to make sue that you never forget that it’s taking place in the 50s and you can be sure that every cliché that you associate with that decade will pop up at least once.  There are a few scenes that could have been easily been replaced with a picture of Joaquin Phoenix holding a sign reading, “It’s the 50s,” without causing us to miss out on any important information.

And yet, I still liked Inventing the Abbotts.  I think it really comes down to the fact that I’m the youngest of four sisters and therefore, I have a weakness for movies about sisters.  And the sisters in Inventing the Abbotts are all perfectly cast and believable as siblings so, for me, the movie was redeemed because of the number of scenes to which anyone who is a sister or who has a sister will be able to relate.

As such, despite its flaws, Inventing the Abbotts is definitely a guilty pleasure for me.

Your results may vary.

Inventing the Abbotts

Embracing the Melodrama #44: Normal Life (dir by John McNaughton)


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Out of all the sin-in-the-suburbs films that I’ve watched recently, 1996’s Normal Life is one of the best.  Judging from the lack of reviews of this film online, it also appears to be one of the least known.  So, allow me to rectify that by telling you a little about Normal Life.

In Normal Life, Luke Perry plays Chris Anderson, a seemingly naive police officer.  From the minute that we first see Chris, it’s obvious that he’s a cop.  With his thinning hair, his anonymous mustache, and his deliberately calm and controlled manner, there’s no way that Chris could be anything else.

One night, Chris goes out to a bar and sees Pam (Ashley Judd) getting into a fight with her date and cutting her hand.  Chris, playing the hero, bandages it and then asks her for a dance.  For him, it’s love at first sight.  Soon, Chris is taking Pam on dates to the shooting range and, before you know it, they’re married.  Pam, it soon becomes obvious, is emotionally unstable.  She deals with disagreements by threatening to kill herself and trashing the apartment that she shares with Chris.  She makes little secret of how little respect she has for Chris’s family and she often goes out of her way to embarrass him.  However, Chris will never leave her because he’s in love with the idea of being the only one who can save her.  And, even though Pam may not admit it, she wants to be saved.  Chris gives her stability while Pam gives Chris a taste of excitement that his life would otherwise lack.

Unfortunately, even after Chris loses his job, Pam continues to spend money extravagantly.  Soon, in order to support his wife, Chris starts to utilize his law enforcement experience by robbing banks.  Now that they finally have money, they are able to move to a perfect house in the suburbs and Chris is able to pursue his lifelong dream of opening and running a small used bookstore.

However, Pam eventually discovers that Chris is a bank robber and soon decides that she wants to rob a bank with him.  Chris knows that it’s a mistake to involve the unpredictable Pam but, as the film makes clear, he will always chose her happiness over everything else…

Normal Life was directed by John McNaughton, who also directed the seminal serial killer film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  And while Normal Life is a far less disturbing film than Henry, it does utilize a similar technique of emphasizing just how banal Chris’s suburban lifestyle really is.  When Chris isn’t robbing banks or dealing with his suicidal wife, he’s essentially a rather boring guy who is perfectly happy to spend his days running his little bookstore.  The best scenes in the film are the ones where Chris simply walks to the doorway of his house, the placid calmness of the suburbs providing a strong contrast to what we know is going on inside that house and inside Chris’s head.

Of the two lead performers, Ashley Judd has the showier role and she does give a fantastically brave performance, providing an honest and sympathetic portrayal as a character who is not always pleasant to watch.  Luke Perry, however, is even better.  Whereas Judd is playing a character who is literally incapable of hiding her emotions, Perry has to play a character who keeps all of his emotions hidden.  Judd’s performance is almost totally external while Perry’s performance is largely internal and, when those two techniques come together, it tells us all we need to know about why Chris and Pam are fated to be together.

Normal Life is a film that you need to see.  And you can watch it below!

Embracing the Melodrama #43: The Piano (dir by Jane Campion)


I recently watched the 1993 best picture nominee The Piano and all I can say is that it is going to be a struggle to put into words just how much I loved this film.

Taking place in the 19th century, The Piano tells the story of Ada (Holly Hunter), a Scottish woman who hasn’t spoken since she was 6 years old.  Like many things in this enigmatic film, the reason why Ada stopped speaking is never clearly stated.  What is known is that she communicates through sign language and by playing her piano.  While Ada is usually a black-clad and somber figure, she comes to life when she plays the piano.  Ada also has a daughter named Flora, the result of a brief affair that Ada had with one of her teachers.  Unlike her mother, Flora (played by 10 year-old Anna Paquin, long before True Blood) is rarely silent and delights in telling elaborate lies about how her father died.

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Ada’s father sells her into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman named Alisdair (Sam Neill), a man who Ada has never even met.   When Ada and Flora first arrive in New Zealand, they are dropped off on the beach and forced to wait a night until Alsdair can meet them.  In the film’s most hauntingly beautiful scenes, Ada plays her piano on that beach while Ada dances in the surf.  It’s during those scenes that The Piano reveals three of its greatest strengths: the lush cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh, the haunting score composed from Michael Nyman, and the fact that Hunter and Paquin are totally believable as mother and daughter.  Not only is it easy to imagine Paquin growing up to look like Holly Hunter, but the two actresses even manage to perfectly imitate each other’s gestures and facial expressions.  Most of the reviews that I’ve read of  The Piano tend to emphasize the film’s focus on the conflict between the sensual and repressed but to me, the film works just as well as an exploration of the strong bonds that naturally exist between mothers and daughters.  I’m not ashamed to admit that when I look at the picture above, I reminded of how, when I was Flora’s age, I also used to hide behind my mom whenever I saw anyone that I didn’t know coming our way.

When Alisdair does finally show up to take them to their new home, he proves to be a rather cold and distant figure.  It would have been very easy for the film to portray Alisdair as being a completely heartless villain but, as played by Sam Neill, Alisdair is potrtayed as being less a traditional villain and more as just being a painfully unimaginative man who is incapable of understanding why Ada’s piano is so important to her.  To Ada, the piano and its music equals the life and freedom that she’s not allowed to experience.  To Alisdair, the piano is simply a bulky object that will not fit into his small house.  Over Ada’s objections (luckily, Flora is on hand to translate her sign language), Alisdair first leaves the piano on the beach and then agrees to sell it to Baines (Harvey Keitel), another white settler who — unlike Alisdair — is comfortable with the natives and their customs.

Baines, however, allows Ada to come over to his hut and play the piano.  He offers to give the piano back to her — key by key — if she agrees to continue to come to his hut and play while he watches and “pleasures” himself.  Reluctantly, Ada agrees but soon, she and Baines are falling in love.

Needless to say, when Alisdair finds out what has been going on at Baines’s hut, he is not happy.  As he largely considers to be his property, bought and paid for, he also feels that he has the right to decide whether or not she’s capable of playing her piano…

The Piano: Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin

The Piano is a simply an amazing and visually sensual film that is blessed with excellent lead performances from Hunter, Keitel, Neill, and Paquin.  As directed by Jane Campion, The Piano plays out as both a delirious homage to gothic romanticism and a feminist parable about the way that even women who aren’t mute are still punished for expressing their honest desires.

And, of course, there’s that amazing score:

Embracing the Melodrama #42: Indecent Proposal (dir by Adrian Lyne)


This one is just dumb.

First released in 1993 and something of a perennial on AMC, Indecent Proposal tells the story of David (Woody Harrelson) and Diane (Demi Moore), two kids who meet in high school, get married, and end up living what, in Hollywood, passes for an average, middle class lifestyle — which is to say, Diane is a successful real estate broker, David is an architect, and they’re in the process of building their dream house on the beach.  (Just like everyone else you know, right?)  However, the economy goes bad, David loses his job, and they find themselves deep in debt.

Desperately, they decide to take a gamble.  Literally.  They go to Las Vegas and, at first, it seems like everything’s going to be alright.  David has a run of luck and makes a lot of money.  They make so much money that David and Diane end up having sex on top of it.  Now, I have to admit, if I ever won $25,000 dollars in Vegas, I would probably spread it on a bed and roll around naked on it as well.  But only if it was paper money.  Coins would probably be uncomfortable and I’d hate to end up with a hundred little impressions of George Washington’s profile running up and down my body.

But anyway, David and Diane make the mistake of sticking around in Vegas for a second day and they end up losing all of the money that they previously won and you better believe that when the chips are pulled away, Diane is shown trying grab them in slow motion while going, “Noooooo!”  Soon, David and Diane are sitting in an all-night diner and trying to figure out what to do next.  A waitress overhears them and sadly shakes her head.  Obviously, she’s seen a lot of movies about Las Vegas.

Anyway, this movie is too dumb to waste this many words on its plot so let’s just get to the point.  David and Diane meets John Gage (Robert Redford), a millionaire who offers to give David a million dollars in exchange for having one (and only one) commitment-free night with Diane.  David and Diane agree and then spend the rest of the movie agonizing over their decision.  Eventually, this leads to Diane and David splitting up, John Gage reentering the picture and proving himself to be not such a bad guy, and David eventually buying a hippo.

It’s all really dumb.

Anyway, I was planning on making quite a few points about this set-up but, quite frankly, this film is so dumb that I’m getting annoyed just writing this review.  So, instead of breaking this all down scene-by-scene, I’m just going to point out a few things and then move on to better melodramas.

1) Every character in the movie has a scene where they eventually ask what we (the viewing audience) would do if we were in a similar situation.  “Would you have sex for a million dollars?”  Well, let’s see.  Basically, the deal seems to be that you have safe, non-kinky, missionary position sex with a millionaire who you will never have to see again after you get paid.  And you’re getting a million dollars in return.  Would I do it?  OF COURSE, I’D DO IT!  It’s a million dollars, it’s just one night, and it’s not like you’re being asked to fuck Vladimer Putin or something.  If the film wanted to create a true moral dilemma, they should have cast someone other than Robert Redford as John Gage and they should have had Gage propose something more than just one night.  If Gage had been played by an unappealing actor (or perhaps if the film were made today with Redford looking as craggly as he did in Capt. America or All Is Lost) or if it had been a million dollars for Diane to serve as a member of Gage’s harem for a year, the film would have been far different and perhaps not any better but at least all of the subsequent angst would have made sense.

2) What really annoyed me is that, after Diane returns from her night with Gage, neither she nor her husband ever cash that million dollar check.  If you’re going to agree to the stupid deal, at least take advantage of it.

3) Finally, why would you accept a check for something like that?  Did Gage write, “For letting me fuck your wife” in the memo line?  Why not get paid in cash so, at the very least, you don’t have to deal with IRS?

Seriously, this movie is just dumb.

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Embracing the Melodrama #41: Poison Ivy (dir by Katt Shea)


“I still think about her. I guess, still love her. She might have been even more alone than I was. I miss her.” — Syvlie Cooper (Sara Gilbert) reflects on her murderous BFF Ivy (Drew Barrymore)

1992’s Poison Ivy is narrated by alienated and confused Sylvie (Sara Gilbert), a teenager who describes herself as being  “the politically / environmentally-correct feminist poetry-reading type.”  Syvlie has issues.  Her father (Tom Skerritt) is a self-righteous television pundit while her mother (Cheryl Ladd) is stuck at home, confined to bed and slowly dying.  Ivy’s only friend is her dog, Fred.  Sylvie deals with her alienation by constantly lying, often claiming that her real father is actually a black man who had an affair with her mother.

When Sylvie sees a girl (Drew Barrymore) brazenly swinging on a rope with her skirt around her waist, she is immediately fascinated. After spending a while obsessing over the girl’s physical appearance, Sylvie tells us, “Maybe I’m a lesbian…no definitely not.  I really wish we could be friends.”  Her desire for friendship continues even after Sylvie witnesses the girl violently euthanize a dog that’s been hit by a car.

Later, at school, Sylvie finds herself sitting in detention for calling in a bomb threat to her father’s show.  When the girl joins her in detention, Sylvie strikes up a conversation with her.  It turns out that the girl knows who Sylvie’s father is and that she considers him to be “an asshole.”  However, that still doesn’t prevent the girl from accepting a ride home with Sylvie and her father.  When introducing the girl, Sylvie calls her “Ivy,” presumably after one of the girl’s tattoos.  What’s interesting — and probably often missed — is that the girl herself never introduces herself as Ivy.  It’s a name given to her by Sylvie.

Not wasting any time, Ivy is soon Sylvie’s best friend and is even living in Sylvie’s house.  At first, Ivy is exactly the best friend that Sylvie needs, encouraging her to come out of her shell, take chances, and even get a tattoo.  However, soon, Ivy is not just helping Sylvie do everything that she’s ever wanted to but she’s also acting on all of Sylvie’s subconscious desires as well.  Ivy first manages to bond with Sylvie’s mother and then proceeds to seduce her father.  Finally, even Fred finds himself preferring the company of Ivy to his original owner…

Is there anything more wonderful than female friendship?  I think not but then again, that’s really not relevant to Poison Ivy because this film has not interest in being a realistic look at the relationship between Sylvie and Ivy.  Instead, it’s a hyper-stylized take on the type of material that you would normally expect to find in a trashy novel and the movie is all the better for it.  Fortunately, the movie was directed by Katt Shea who brings a sensitivity to material that a male director would probably only view as an excuse for titillation.

I think the film is best interpreted as being Sylvie’s fantasy.  In fact, I would argue that the case could be made that the entire film takes place in Sylvie’s head.  It’s her fantasy of having the type of uninhibited friend who will encourage her to conquer all of her fears and who will accept her for all of her strange quirks.  However, that’s not just Sylvie’s fantasy.  That’s a universal fantasy that every teenage girl has had (and probably a few teenage boys as well).  Is there any wonder that the film ends with Sylvie admitting that she still misses Ivy?

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