“MEN” (1997); Anatomy of a Flawed Movie
A movie is like a meal.
It’s said that too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. I’ve never quite apprehended that saying, being that just like it takes a village to raise a child, a kitchen, like the crew of a submarine (to use Bourdain’s allusion) necessarily involves a group of people working in concert.
I’ve always thought that, just as in a childbirth so many things can go wrong, movies likewise present many opportunities for its moving parts to not gel and set properly. Movies that are perfect, or near perfect, are always a joy, considering all the things that could have gone wrong. “The Godfather,” “Blade Runner,” “China Town,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Arrival” and “Sicario” and others. You watch them and, like a perfect book, cannot imagine them being any way other than the way they turned out
The list of movies that miss the mark are infinitely longer.
My interest was piqued in the lobby of the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica, a movie-house that has been there for in one form or another since 1929. I watched a late 1980’s revival of “Blade Runner” there, before VCR’s went mainstream. Others: “Until the End of the World” with William Hurt; “Old Boy” by Park Chan-wook; a showing of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Near the restroom entrance, there is an electronic poster that toggles between movie posters, and one of them is for the 1997 movie “Men,” based on the well-received novel by Margaret Diehl. It looked interesting. Sean Young, while not the best actor, is easy to watch. I’d loved “No Way Out” and “Blade Runner,” even “Dune.”
I’ve always thought that we learn more about the art of storytelling from bad movies than from good movies.
The story for “Men” is good.
Stella James (Sean Young) leaves New York for Los Angeles, at the urging of her boyfriend, Teo Morrison (Dylan Walsh). Their love is still strong, but Teo is flawed, entranced with an addiction to alcohol, and the dark romance of a slow suicide.
In Los Angeles she is superficially free of the past. She continues experimenting with sexual promiscuity with the guilt-free demeanor of a male cad. One of her lovers is the restaurant owner boss where she works as the chef. Her landlord chides her for acting like a “slut” with the zest of a man. Men can sleep around and not be called whores, she’s says. Women cannot be that way without paying a price.
She falls in love with a young photographer, Frank (Richard Hillman). He opens her eyes to the world as seen through the prism of monogamy, and she finds happiness with him. But her luck with men is not good. The boyfriend she left in New York dies, and Frank gets shot while photographing a liquor store robbery, also dies.
We get an existentialist wind-down. A beach shot. A wash of soul-centering chant. A lovely sunset that wordlessly says, “There are tears in all things, and all things doomed to die touch the heart.”
“Oh. I miss Frank a lot,” Stella narrates. “But it seems like I got all the answers to my questions. It took a long time, but I did find love. You have to go through a lot to find yourself, and some of it, I guess, is ugly. But it makes you aware of what is beautiful. Frank saw that too.”
She’s in a different kitchen now, preparing new dishes.
“This new woman I have found is alive and real. But I wonder if people will know what lies behind it. If they know what experiences my curiosities put me through. Will they think the past is ugly and send it back like a plate of food they haven’t even tasted yet? So it’s a present I’m gonna share with myself. I think I’m beginning to understand the present.”
End narration. Pan the restaurant diners. Flash across the screen the words, “The Beginning,” instead of “The End.”
What we like or dislike sometimes is always allied, to varying degrees, with the tastes that turn us on or off. One person thinks a dish too salty, another not salty enough. Some people love gazpacho; cold soup makes me gag. I love eggs in any form; eggs provoke nausea in the love of my life’s palate and tummy. Different strokes for different strokes.
But some things are beyond mere personal taste, and are thought by consensus to be either excellent, just okay, or abysmal on their own merits. (It took me some time to realize this, especially in reference to horror movies, which I used to — and mostly still — hate. But many friends whose tastes I trust love them. Ok.)
Many of the ingredients used in “Men” were very tasty. Others not so much.
Sean Young is, like Kevin Costner, not a particularly good actor, but depending on the vehicle, a good director can coax good things from her. Her acting in “Men” was serviceable, at times bordering on pretty good. However, she didn’t always seem to adequately shore up the story. I blame the director for this.
John Heard was very good. He’s a favorite of mine, ever since I fell in love with him in “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” based on an Anne Beattie novel. In “Men” he is funny and serves his character’s motivations and emotions aptly. His best scene is where he asks Sean to marry him, and she’s confounded and frustrated by his violation of their explicit understanding that she does not want any commitment. Sean Young’s acting in this scene is also excellent. Sometimes a good actor can do what a director fails to do: direct an actor by their own excellent acting.
Karen Black, one of the movie’s producers, as the character Alex is also a delight. She gives a loopy, comical performance as one of Frank’s friend.
Which brings me to Frank, played by the late Richard Hillman.
At least in this movie, Hillman is a poor actor unable to transcend his physical limitations, one or two of them self-imposed. His face seems like the autistic visage of a special needs child. The timbre of his voice makes one want to slap him silly. And the haircut he sports — a girlish pull-back with a tiny tail atop his head and blond the wings of a child in “The Waltons” to either side of his head — makes you wonder if the casting director was asleep or on drugs, or both, when this drelb was hired. Sometimes actors not to our liking appear in movies to initially irritate us, but are able through story and charisma and good acting to make us see what a director wants us to see. Not poor Hillman, rest in peace.
The music seems inappropriate in spots, jaunty or moody or, in keeping with the dramedy of the story.
I can imagine what the director, Zoe Clarke-Williams, and the producers were shooting for. Something indie-spirited like Alan Rudoph’s 1988 “The Moderns”, Greg Mottola’s 1996 “The Daytrippers”, or Claudia Weill’s 1978 “Girlfriends” with the wonderful Melanie Mayron.
Instead we get a movie that feels cool, distant, inadequately constructed. The scene where Sean Young learns of the death of the Dylan Walsh character is wonderfully understated. At the same time, there’s very little by way of connecting the death to Sean Young to spark the sorrow she feels in the viewer. Likewise in the scene where Richard Hillman’s Frank dies, Sean Young’s acting is rambling and inorganic, and her tears feel concocted, her sorrow disconnected, and not disconnected in the way that real death can truncate our emotions, but in the way that bad acting can do this. The director should have re-written the scene, and reshot it until it felt authentic.
I love story. I was hungry for story. I found the premise of the story appealing. I found the drama, the poetry and the main character’s opportunity at freedom and redefinition and rebirth enticing and delectable, full of possibility. The story was there, but the actor’s ensemble, lamentably, were unable to sell me on the story.
I’m not sure how the dialogue in the novel by Margaret Diehl reads. I’ve placed a hold on a copy from the Los Angeles Public Library. I’d like to read this praised novel to get a clearer idea of what was lost in the translation.