DIANE KEATON and JULIETTE LEWIS

DIANE KEATON and JULIETTE LEWIS

Movies that accurately portray the lives of people who have mental disabilities are important. Such movies, by helping the general population better understand the exceptional people in their midst, can create a healthier and more constructive environment for everyone. The Other Sister,’ a 1999 film starring Diane Keaton and directed by Gary Marshall, tried to do that but fell on its face. In fact, it was embarrassing for me to watch, and it should have been embarrassing for the actors to perform.

The “other” sister of the title is Carla Tate, played by Juliette Lewis, who is mentally challenged in some way but who is bright and personable and eager to live independently. Carla is the youngest of three daughters of well-off parents, Elizabeth and Radley, played by Diane Keaton and Tom Skerritt.

JULIETTE LOWE and GIOVANNI RIBISI

JULIETTE LEWIS and GIOVANNI RIBISI

At the beginning of the film, Carla has successfully completed the course of study at a private boarding school and is returning to her family’s home. She wants to get on with her life (and by that she means get training at a public polytech school, get a job, and get an apartment), but Elizabeth has no confidence in her daughter’s ability to do anything but live under the protection of her parents. Radley — who seems to have licked a drinking problem — is a little more willing to let Carla stretch. Carla does go to a tech school, and there she meets Danny McMann (Giovanni Ribisi) who, of course, is also mentally challenged and, it seems, less bright and emotionally stable than Carla. The two strike up a friendship and then fall in love and then become sexually active — an aspect of their story that the filmmakers handled with exquisite clumsiness. Carla wears Elizabeth down enough to get an apartment, but Danny isn’t doing as well in school, and his absentee father cuts off funding for any further education. There is a painful scene in which Danny attends a country club Christmas party with Carla and her parents, is intimidated by the surroundings, gets hopelessly drunk, grabs the bandstand microphone and blurts out his feelings for Carla and the fact that the two have been having sex. She is furious at the crowd for laughing at her, as she interprets their reaction, and at Danny for embarrassing her. The next we see of Danny, he is on a train heading home, wherever that is.

TOM SKERRITT, DIANE KEATON, and JULIETTE LEWIS

TOM SKERRITT, DIANE KEATON, and JULIETTE LEWIS

Cut to the wedding ceremony of the second of the three daughters. Marshall, perhaps to demonstrate that the spirit of Laverne and Shirley is never quite exorcized from his soul, brings Danny back, in the balcony of the church, of course, from whence he interrupts the nuptials with a parody of The Graduate. The young couple, now reunited, want to wed, but Elizabeth won’t consent. Carla and Danny are determined to marry with or without Elizabeth’s blessing or presence, but the worth reader can no doubt anticipate how that turns out. As if to test how much an audience can tolerate in a 139-minute movie, Marshall and the other writers arrange for Danny, who was a kind of gofer for the polytech’s marching band, surprise Carla outside the church with the band in full regalia marching by and playing “Seventy-six Trombones.”

I guess the filmmakers were concerned that this movie would not seem socially relevant, and so they included a subplot in which Elizabeth is estranged from her third daughter, who lives in a gay relationship. Guess what happens at the end.

The marriage of Carla and Danny

The marriage of Carla and Danny

The most annoying thing about this movie is that it treats a serious subject like a sit-com. The annoyance is aggravated by the patronizing portrayals of both of the young people—although Juliette Lewis does her best with what she was given to work with—and by the improbable and even slapstick scenes. Marshall doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with those characters, or maybe he’s simply not competent to deal with such personalities. How else to explain that on one hand Carla is presented to us as mature, confident, and determined, while on the other hand she accompanies her mother to a benefit event at an animal shelter and starts barking at the dogs being housed there and ultimately turns them loose. The sequence in which a bartender at a high-end country club serves an obviously troubled young man one powerful drink after another stretches credibility to the breaking point. A scene in which Elizabeth comandeers a golf cart to chase a distraught Carla across the country club lawns is hopelessly absurd. And Keaton’s portrayal of the inconsistently up-tight Elizabeth can set  one’s teeth on edge.

Roger Ebert, of happy memory, commenting about this film, cited Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that the best response to a bad film is to make a good film. In this case, Ebert wrote and I agree, that film is Dominick and Eugene. Don’t see this one; see that one.

 

 

 

HECTOR ELIZONDO

I have to begin by saying that I was predisposed to like Tortilla Soup because I am predisposed to like Hector Elizondo, who is the focal point of this film. Tortilla Soup, a 2001 remake of the 1994 Taiwanese movie Eat Drink Man Woman, concerns Martin Naranjo (Elizondo), a semi-retired Mexican-American gourmet chef who is the widowed father of three beautiful young women. His daughters still live at home and — at the beginning of the story, at least — gingerly try to accommodate his fixed ideas what their lives, and family life, should be.

The oldest daughter, Leticia (Elizabeth Peña) is loveless and unhappily employed as a high school chemistry teacher. She has broken with her father only to the extent that she has left the Roman Catholic Church in favor of evangelical Christianity. The second daughter, Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), would have liked to follow in her father’s culinary footsteps, but she caved into his pressure to become a businesswoman. The youngest girl, Maribel (Tamara Mello), disdains the degree of her sisters’ conformity and is potentially the most rebellious.

In a parallel story story line, Yolanda (Constance Marie), a divorced friend of the family, introduces her mother, Hortensia (Raquel Welch), into the Naranjo household. The flamboyant Hortensia quickly decides that she will marry Martin and mistakenly believes that he shares her ambition.

ELIZABETH PEÑA

As Martin strives to keep his family together with a constant stream of elaborate meals, each of his daughters starts to drift away – Letitia into the arms of an athletic coach at the high school, Carmen to a lucrative job in Barcelona, and Maribel to the side of a young man who is more of an alternative to her father than he is a lover.

Although the situation is hackneyed and the denouement is predictable, this is a charming movie. That’s attributable to the attractive and talented cast, the intimate nature of both the story and the manner in which it is told, and the lively and evocative musical background.

Elizondo, whose stodginess is altogether benign, is irresistible, and the actresses who portray his daughters establish a credible combination of affection and tension among themselves and between them and their father.

I don’t recommend watching this film on an empty stomach, because the enormous amount of food that cascades across the screen as one meal follows another is mouth-watering.

TOM HANKS

TOM HANKS

We watched “Nothing in Common,” a 1986 film directed by Garry Marshall, starring Tom Hanks, Jackie Gleason, Eva Marie Saint, Sela Ward, Bess Armstrong, and Hector Elizondo.

Hanks plays David Basner, who is on a rapid rise in the advertising industry; he has money, friends, women. What he doesn’t have is any sense of self, thanks to a dysfunctional upbringing by parents — Eva Marie Saint as Lorraine Basner and Gleason, in his last role, as Max– whose marriage limped along for more than 30 years without a raison d’etre, and now, at a critical moment in David’s career, has collapsed. Both parents bring the issue to David, who has kept his distance since he left home and has never developed a relationship with either of them.

Bess Armstrong plays a high school friend and one-time flame to whom David often turns for understanding or simple emotional release. Sela Ward plays Cheryl Ann Wayne, a hard-nosed but seductive agency executive with whom David becomes entangled, in more ways than one, as he tries to land a major airline account. Elizondo is David’s boss, and Barry Corbin is the head of the airline and Wayne’s father.

JACKIE GLEASON

JACKIE GLEASON

All of these actors turn in strong performances. Hanks gets a chance to show his full range, from borderline nuts to pensive and insecure. Gleason, conceding a year before his death that he is an old and infirm man, uses just enough of the Charlie Bratton bombast and the Poor Soul pathos to make Max a complicated and interesting character. Gleason avoids what to him was always a temptation to chew the scenery. When he had it under control, Gleason had an intuition for drama, and he puts it to work here, particularly in brief passages in which he doesn’t speak. Eva Marie Saint, who I think is among the most unappreciated of actresses, is very moving as the broken-hearted wife and mother.

EVA MARIE SAINT

EVA MARIE SAINT

This movie takes on some difficult, almost embarrassing themes — the reasons for the failure of this marriage and the impact of a bad marriage on the child it generated — and it deals with them realistically, not looking for easy answers.

Marshall managed to achieve a delicate balance between comedy and drama that in some ways is almost tragedy. This film hasn’t got a lot of attention, but it should.