Kevin Costner and Joan Allen star in this film about a mother of four daughters in their teens and early twenties, who is abandoned by her husband and takes up with a former baseball star-turned-radio commentator. The interplay between Terry and Denny is muted, but then, the entire atmosphere of the film is by turns dark, frustrating, stifling, and brilliantly thoughtful.
I actually think this film is more meaningful than American Beauty (1999). Certainly the ending is less futile (you'll forgive me for liking uplifting endings). The dysfunctions of all the daughters are real, but as in The Joy Luck Club (1993), they actually lead somewhere. All are played by lovely actresses and are actually quite sympathetic. Alicia Witt, Erika Christensen and Keri Russell are smart, sassy, and sometimes frustratingly helpless and self-destructive as three of the daughters. Evan Rachel Wood is brilliant as Popeye, the youngest.
The point of view is very much Denny's: sometimes the viewer will sympathize with him for his mature and thoughtful outlook, sometimes for his frustrations, sometimes because he doesn't seem to know what he's getting into. On one or two occasions you'll want to smack them yourself.
Mike Binder is the other point in the dynamical system, a dislikable but sometimes laughable cad whose predatory attempts are met with just humiliation - and more. The rest of the supporting cast members, including the Hapless Fiance of one of the daughters, are fairly invisible, but the story comes through the more richly for their presence. Terry and her family is at once loving and self-interested, at once resentful and needful.
The film has its flaws. Sometimes subtle and sometimes petty, it is frustrating to watch, particularly in its telling of the thwarted dancer Emily's frustrations. The sibling banter is a bit boring and typical. Just a few times, though, there is an utterly charming moment - usually as you are shaking your head at something fascinatingly dense that one of the daughters (or Terry or Denny) has said. The themes of transformation through anger, self-forgiveness, coping with feelings of abandonment, are well explored. The tone is realistic, neither entirely dark nor a "feel-good, self-help" film: acknowledging and releasing anger is shown to be self-revealing but not a panacea. People who favor medicating everyone with emotional problems should probably stay clear of this one, as is well indicated by the undertone of alcoholism throughout the film.
In some ways, this film will invite comparisons to Steel Magnolias (1989) in that it deals with a group of women faced with an unanswerable tragedy. On the one hand, the relationships explored here are a bit more off-key; on the other hand, despite the youth of the women involved, the two films share some motifs: mutual support and repressed grief, different ways of coping with familial loss, and conflict between coping mechanisms.
The backdrop is suburban New England, filmed in rich, vibrant autumn color. If you are looking for a dark comedy (in the theatrical sense) that is pretty in the way St. Elmo's Fire (1985) was, this is the film for you. By the way, if you want to see a Chinese film in a similar style and with a plot and dialogue that are of comparable depth, watch Yin Shi Nan Nu (1994) - it's title is literally translated Eat Drink Man Woman (which I suppose gives it more mystique than the meaning, "food, drink, and sex").
8.5 / 10