Retro Film Review: When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)

in #aaalast month


Hollywood studios occasionally make films about difficult subjects - dramas intended to earn "Oscars" or make some political statement dear to Hollywood liberals' hearts. Ironically, of those difficult subjects the least popular among Hollywood film makers is the one which is supposed to be the easiest- alcoholism, phenomenon well- recorded and well-known long before things like recreational drug use or AIDS. However, the world's very familiarity with alcoholism and the nature of that affliction are the reasons why the stories about it seemingly lack dramatic potential - unlike drug abuse stories, they can't easily adopt crime subplots and unlike AIDS stories, they lack political messages. The subject is too familiar to the general audience; it would have more difficulty in accepting Hollywood's romanticised, over-sentimental treatment of that dark and depressive subject. Some Hollywood film makers, however, weren't discouraged by such obstacle. One of them was Louis Mandoki who covered alcoholism in his 1994 drama When a Man Loves a Woman.

Protagonist of the film is Alice Green (played by Meg Ryan), young, attractive and successful woman who earns her living as school guidance counsellor, lives in posh San Francisco home, has two beautiful children and husband Michael (played by Andy Garcia), handsome and equally successful airline pilot. Their marriage seems perfect, although at times Alice likes to drink and party too much, at least for Michael's taste. She promises to clean up her act, but one terrifying incident would face both spouses with unpleasant truth - Alice is an alcoholic. Michael is determined to help his wife in battling this problem and takes her to substance abuse clinic. When Alice returns, she has sobered up, but this is only beginning of problems for Greens. As both spouses try to rebuild their lives and Alice struggles every day with her addiction, Michael realises that the depressed, nervous and cranky wife is far from cheerful, carefree girl he had married.

The best thing about When a Man Loves a Woman is the script by Ronald Bass and Al Franken. It takes more realistic and more demanding approach to the issues of substance abuse. The film shows that the alcoholism can strike anyone - even the beautiful people who seem to have it all. It also shows its devastating effect on family through co-dependency - children, spouses and other family members who live in denial and thus provide convenient excuses for the substance abusers never to face their problem. It also shows how the recovery - the fairytale happy ending of conventional substance abuse stories - actually represents first stage in ever-lasting and often not very pleasant process, which is at times as difficult as addiction itself.

The honest and uncompromising approach of the script was compromised in the end due to Hollywood's need to sugar-coat this story. The most problematic thing is casting - while Meg Ryan handles her role of alcoholic - so different from the characters that had made her the queen of romantic comedies - very well, it is somewhat more difficult to accept Latin heartthrob Andy Garcia as her husband. The couple looks too perfect to be taken seriously. But even with such obstacles, Mandoki somehow manages to make this film look realistic, at least until the usually over-sentimental happy ending. That ending comes too late for many viewers, who would until that time notice Mandoki's problems with pacing. Yet, even with problematic casting and too much length, When a Man Loves a Woman remains honest, well-intentioned drama about difficult subject and the film that should deserve viewers' attention.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on January 16th 2004)

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