Published September 1, 1997
She’s So Lovely was directed by Nick Cassavetes from a screenplay by his late father, John Cassavetes, and provides a showcase for the talents of Sean Penn and his real-life wife, Robin Wright Penn, in classic Cassavetes situations of groups of friends sitting around, getting drunk together, laughing and saying the sorts of things that sound profound or funny when you’re drunk. But Mr and Mrs Penn are engaging performers as a dysfunctional couple in the middle of a dysfunctional environment, and it is hard to resist the film’s invitation to admire the vitality, the charm, the authentic feeling with which they take on the troubles of the world—most of which are of their own making.
There are, in short, some genuinely funny and some genuinely touching moments.The trouble is that that is all there is. The Cassavetes family does not confront the moral issues they raise but allow themselves to rest content with nothing but a representation of the intensity of the feelings of love and attachment between the Penns, and the energy of their expression. That and a few laughs. There is no other point to the picture and that makes it look as if it belongs to the sixties rather than the nineties.
The film begins with Eddie (Mr Penn) and Maureen (Mrs Penn) living in a transient hotel from which Eddie periodically disappears for days at a time. She is pregnant with his child and the sort of person who, though not without her strengths, cannot bear to be alone. On the occasion of one of his disappearances, she seeks the company of a neighbor, Kiefer (James Gandolfini), with whom she gets drunk (drink is a big part of everybody’s life here). He beats her up and rapes her. Worried that, when Eddie comes home and sees her bruises, he will kill the neighbor, Maureen seeks help from some kind of municipal mental health service, where they give her a number to call if she is alarmed.
Eddie returns. But he buys her story of having fallen down in the street in the rain. He is already half drunk and the two of them go out on the town. “We were made for each other,” says Eddie. “We’re both banged up.”
Maureen agrees: “We do what we feel like doing, even if we get punched.”
In the morning, however, when he is sober, Eddie extracts an admission of the neighbor’s assault and goes after him with a gun.
Still, we are never allowed to take him too seriously, even though he has a gun. “Don’t answer me until I ask,” he says to Maureen as he is being forceful with her. “’Cause you don’t know what I’m going to ask. Unless you’re clairvoyant. Which you could be. Though you haven’t been up till now. . .” And so on until he has fogotten what he was going to ask. So when he goes bursting into Kiefer’s apartment with gun blazing we are not surprised that his target is not at home. Naturally, Eddie goes out to look for him, but we know he will not get further than the local bar, where he and everyone else seem to spend all their time.
Maureen, however, is frightened and calls the number of the mental health authority. When the men in the white coats arrive at the bar, Eddie, in a drunken, lunatic frenzy, shoots one of them. He is hauled off in a strait-jacket to a mental hospital where a tearful Maureen assures him that he will be out in three months. Ten years later, Eddie finally gets out, but he thinks he has only been in for three months, since that is what Maureen had promised him. She, meanwhile, has married and had two more children with Joey (John Travolta), a builder who has a nice car and a nice house in the suburbs, far from the Skid Row where the first half of the film is set. Maureen is badly upset by Eddie’s release and tells Joey that she still loves him. “I love you too, but I love him more.” Later she explains: “The guy’d go right off the bridge for me. I think he went nuts for me.”
The natural set-up here is for a confrontation between Skid Row authenticity and bourgeois respectabililty, but Joey turns out to be a bit of a wild and crazy guy himself. We know we’re in for a wild ride when Joey invites Eddie (and “a friend” ) for dinner at his suburban villa to discuss what they are going to do about Maureen and Jeanie (Kelsey Mulrooney), the daughter she had by Eddie. In fact they don’t even get as far as dinner before there ensues a scene of drunken riot interspersed with tenderness as Eddie proposes that Joey should go on being Jeanie’s daddy while he can be her second best friend — since, however many best friends you have, “you only ever have one second best friend.”
The conclusion to the rivalry between Joey and Eddie comes as the two of them are grappling on the front lawn and Eddie says: “She doesn’t love you. She doesn’t love me. She’s de-lovely.” This interesting stab at comprehension may or may not be true, but she seems to choose Eddie and Skid Row over Joey and suburbia. And her kids — the two she’s had with Joey as well as Jeanie. So the conclusion to the bigger moral problem, the problem of what to do about the kids, is that they don’t matter. They’ll get over it. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. However much we may still be subject to the spell of the sixties’ bacchanalia, we know that’s not true.