Helen Hunt thinks she’s better than Sex and the City. Or at least that’s one possible message moviegoers might take away from Then She Found Me. Though she may have a point, she doesn’t do herself any favors by making it so ardently.
Here, Hunt makes her directorial debut, adapting Elinor Lipman’s 1990 novel in conjunction with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin, and showing real promise as a filmmaker. But it’s also a moody and mildly embarrassing vanity project, in which Hunt, now midway into her 40s, tries to pass herself off as a 39-year-old schoolteacher and adult adoptee worried about her biological clock.
Yes, it sounds cruel to register this particular complaint in this particular context, but, well, she brought it up. As the anxiously unsatisfied April Epner, Hunt spends most of her movie looking pinched and gaunt and bitter, like some kind of editorial cartoon character. She also spends a little too much of the movie in various revealing states of undress. And in close-ups. Vulnerability and imperfection might be what she’s trying to show, but it’s still an obsequious display.
In the film, April’s panic for motherhood is exacerbated by the sudden, inconvenient death of her disagreeable adoptive mother (Lynn Cohen), and the sudden, inconvenient divorce from her schlubby hubby, a fellow schoolteacher played by Matthew Broderick. Oh, and the sudden, inconvenient discovery of her birth mother (Bette Midler).
To April’s credit, she doesn’t believe it at first either. Mom works as a celebrity talk-show host, and in no time has April wondering if Steve McQueen might be her dad.
And there’s more: a halting romantic interest from the divorced father of one of April’s students. Thankfully, the paramour is played by Colin Firth, who, as a frustration-prone father of two and professional writer of dust-jacket blurbs, lights this otherwise dour movie from within.
At least, that is, until the whole thing starts feeling like a “very special episode” of some sitcom that’s trying hard to be serious.
Hunt handled tricky tone changes like this with relative grace back in her Mad About You days; here, with so much on her plate, she seems overextended and certainly too wound up. That indecision and shaky confidence isn’t coming from April, we slowly realize, it’s coming from the woman bringing her to life.
Hunt’s obvious generosity with actors yields compassionate performances; everyone in the movie registers as a complexly needy human being. But there’s contagious depletion going on here, too: Midler seems middling and uncharacteristically lethargic, and even man-boy Broderick comes off as all dried up.
Then She Found Me has some wonderfully jaunty, funny moments, and it is sharp — sometimes to the point of jaggedness.
It’s not entirely right to say it needs smoothing, because that might just as easily turn into smothering. Rather, what this promising filmmaker really needs is to gather the surety that comes with experience.
It’s safe to assume that once Hunt relaxes a little, her humor will return. Then she can think herself better than whomever she wants, and probably be right.