Monday, March 11, 2013

Rom-com heaven: Joan Carr-Wiggin's IF I WERE YOU has heart, humor, intelligence, great acting -- and King Lear! Below: a Q&A

It's but a month (to the day!) since TM covered another very good romantic comedy, Shanghai Calling, mentioning in the process that if we got a better rom-com than this, we should consider ourselves blessed. Well, blessed we're about to be, thanks to this week's opening of IF I WERE YOU, starring Marcia Gay Harden and Leonor Watling, and directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin. Before we get into the specifics of this particular film, let's talk a bit about the rom-com genre. Romantic comedies needn't always be about how the hero or heroine wind up with each other. Some of the best of the bunch neatly subvert that outcome (My Best Friend's Wedding) or simply refuse, as does this one, to tie up loose ends.

A genuinely adult rom-com can make use of both romance and comedy in its quest to explore subjects such as the nature of our "love" relationships, the human penchant for denial, how friendship develops, the sometimes comic connection between death and sex, the workplace and more. Ms Carr-Wiggin (shown at left) manages all this and a good deal else. With the help of her two lead actresses and an excellent supporting cast, this burgeoning writer/director gives us a smart, expansive rom-com -- and a genuinely good time at the movies.

As usual, the less you know about the plot, the better off you are in terms of surprise and fun. But I will just mention that in its initial scene, the filmmaker's use of a very special chocolate dessert is a simply brilliant stroke: This dessert, her husband's favorite, is what brings his wife to a certain restaurant, and it is very probably what has brought him there, too, and why, as the waitress explains, "We just served the last one."

In one sweet moment or two, this chocolate confection simultaneously shows us the wife's kindness, her husbands' unkindness, and sets off a chain of events that ends up at a curtain call for what looks like a wonderfully new and thought-provoking performance of King Lear. Really: rom-coms rarely get such mileage out of one good gag, and Carr-Wiggin is especially clever at using circumstance and coincidence in a manner that delights us.

The filmmaker is also wonderfully generous to all her characters. Nobody is quite the villain you initially expect. Instead the catalog of human foibles is well arrayed and properly divided among these characters, with the actors playing each of them to a fare-thee-well. It's no secret what a great comedienne is Ms Harden, and here she's at the top of her game. "Watch her body language!" my companion whispered, as the amazingly funny opening scene expanded into further hilarity.

It's true. This actress -- who never has a dishonest moment, no matter how far out she goes -- lets the character and her comic instinct seep into every crevice of her body. She's amazing. When Ms Harden at last plays Lear (yes, she's the King), she is so good in the snippets we see that I can only hope some enterprising producer will let her tackle the entire play. (The movie's "take" on the tiny, barely extant theater company that is trying to do Shakespeare is warmly satiric and should prove nostalgic for those of us who've labored off-off-Broadway.)

As Harden's co-star, the Spanish actress Leonor Watling (at right) is ideal -- as warm and sunny as Harden is tight and closed (and hilarious). The two form a lovely team, it's easy to believe that these women might become fast friends (according to the filmmaker, in our Q&A below, they indeed bonded during the filming). Watling -- who has been hugely appealing in everything from Talk to Her to Unconscious, First Night of My Life to In the City and the more recent and brilliant Lecture 21 -- is one of the true lights of European cinema. I hope this film will at last bring her in closer range of American audiences.

Also in the cast are Aidan Quinn (above, finally appearing halfway through the film, but good enough to easily make up for lost time),

Valerie Mahaffey (above, center, as an un-wronged wife), Joseph Kell (above, left, as the offending hubby), and Gary Piquer (above, right, as a would-be paramour of the work-place). Everyone is terrific, but it's Harden who conquers. If small independent films ever received the kind of recognition that they ought, this performance would be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

If I Were You, from Kino-Lorber and running 115 minutes, opens this Friday, March 15, at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, as well as elsewhere around the country. Click here, then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.


We spoke very briefly by phone with the filmmaker last week, and she proved as friendly and smart as we'd expected. In the short conversation below, TrustMovies' comments/questions are in boldface, with the responses of Joan Carr-Wiggin in standard type.

Would you call this a romantic comedy?  I would, but it’s one in which things like the use of coincidence work so much better than usual.

Well, yes, I would call it that, too, because it’s about relationships and it’s a comedy. What I love best are movies from the 30s and 40s. I always try to get a little into that genre.

I also loved that you did not tie everything up so neatly at the conclusion.
I didn’t see this as a who-do-you-end-up-with kind of thing. To me, the big question is: What play will they do next. (We both laugh.) Private Lives maybe?!

It turns out that the filmmaker and I share a habit:  We both watch a movie every evening with dinner, while our companions -- mine, and Joan's husband -- who are maybe not quite as fond of watching films as we, are nonetheless good sports and so agree to it.

My companion absolutely flipped for this film.  It made his day, if not his week.

I am so glad to hear that!  Do you guys always talk about movies? We do. I am always doing this. Just the other day we were in a cab, and the driver was from Israel, so of course we talked about The Band's Visit.

Ah, yes: We loved that film! Can I ask about the casting of Harden and Watling? 

I actually wrote the part with Leonor (above) in mind. I had seen and loved her work in her My Mother Likes Women, but I hadn’t realized at the time that she was in that Sarah Polley movie, My Life Without Me, which was also filmed in Canada.

Regarding the other role, I wanted to write a really difficult and challenging role for a woman, but then after I had written it, I had to wonder: Who would be willing to tackle a role like this? My casting director suggested Marcia Gay Harden and got the script to her. She read it -- and said yes the next day!

It was such a treat to have this actress on the set. Many of the our actors were stage actors, and were not used to making movies, and so Marcia so kindly and gracefully gave them all these suggestions -- about how to adjust more easily to the movie camera and all sorts of things. She was just wonderful.

And Watling was, too!  The poor girl did have some trouble with the cold weather -- a girl from Spain, after all, isn’t used to the cold climate of Canada. During the shoot she and Marcia became best friends, which is what happens in the movie, too, so I loved that!

Why did you pick King Lear as the play for which the auditions were being held?

I love the character of Lear and I always relate to Lear. It frustrates me to see that women, who are so fully rounded and have so much to offer, are still given such meager roles to play. It frustrates me to see that we’re only able to show such a small part of ourselves.... 

I am particularly pleased that you didn't feel you had to tidy up everything too neatly.

I really prefer not to. But for so many mainstream movies, maximizing revenue seems to be the only goal now. And of course, we want to pay back our investors. But we live in a society where only huge money is treated as important and I worry what this is saying to our young people and what they are learning from this. 

I wonder, too. People look at you like you're crazy, if money isn't the most important thing to you. 

The way you -- and Harden -- do King Lear -- or maybe Queen Lear -- really works, I think.  It made me want to see Harden do the role in the entire play.


And we also loved the use of Watling’s little turn-and-smile-and-wink moment as a curtain call.

We loved that thing she does, and when we had them all up on stage, it just worked.  That was Leonor's last day when we shot that particular scene. And afterwards, Marcia said, "Can everybody stay behind, please?" And we did. And then everybody sang There's No Business Like Show Business, and it was just wonderful!  I so wanted to include this on the DVD when it comes out. 

Why don't you?!

We tried. But we couldn't afford the rights to the song.

Before I watched the film, I didn't look on the IMDB to see what else you'd done. Then afterward, I did -- and realized that you also made A Previous Engagement with Juliet Stevenson. I didn't care much for that film, and so I was glad I had not looked first at your resume. But that's terrible in a way, because it is so limiting!

Yes, but it's just human nature to do that: to judge by what else you have seen.

(The PR person comes on the line to tell us we have time for one more question.)

OK: Last question. What's next for you?

We're starting a movie this summer called Happily Ever After.  We're beginning the casting now. This, too, will be a form of romantic comedy about two girlhood friends who went away from each other but then get reacquainted in their mid-20s.

OK. We will look forward to seeing that one, Joan. And thank you so much for your time today -- and especially for this wonderful movie.


James van Maanen said...

TrustMovies recommended this film to his upstairs neighbors, Joel and Davida. After seeing it, Joel reported back with the following emailed comments, which I thought were quite apt, so I want to share them with my readers:

"We enjoyed the movie quite a bit. Later I looked it up on IMDB and saw that the user rating was only 5.6. After reading a couple of the "external" reviews, I came to some conclusions as to why this movie might not be popular with a general audience. First, Davida and I agreed immediately after seeing the movie that the husband was not at all sympathetic and if good things happened between husband and wife, we did not see them. Of course this is a classic problem for modern audiences with Shakespearean comedies where the happy ending includes some women ending up with less than wonderful husbands. The ending is open and we can root for Quinn, but the possibility of Madelyn re-uniting with her husband is not pleasant.

Another Shakespearean aspect that may be hard for most of us to take is how quickly the character Lucy gets over the major betrayal perpetrated on her by the Harden character. Another way of looking at this is that the movie doesn't quite integrate its screwball and and romantic elements. I got the term "screwball" from another review, and I think it is apt in terms of such scenes as Lucy putting the rope around her neck before she gets to her apartment as well as some of the really fun dialogue. But Lear is not screwball and in addition to the screwball scenes, there are many thought-provoking scenes with Madelyn and Lucy dealing with their romantic, career and self-image problems.

Oh well, another movie for people who think. Doesn't have a chance at the box office."

Thanks, Joel. Unfortunately, I think you may be right about the box-office aspect. But I'll bet that this film, over time, will develop a nice cult following....

Linda Maria said...

I'm a fan of JC-W now. I'm glad I discovered 'A Previous Engagement.' I love the actors she chooses and the way she makes the point that sometimes a mistake can lead to a better situation. I like it when I don't know what will happen next. She doesn't make formula movies, so maybe they're not perfect, but so enjoyable. I loved seeing what Marcia G-H could do in 'If I Were You.' Thanks, Joan!

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, Linda, for taking the time to comment. This is such a good film, and so original, that I hope it reaches a much wider audience in time to come.