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Movie Review: When a Man Loves a Woman

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Meg Ryan, boozer? This we had to see. Nominated for inclusion on our distilled list of potent Barfly Flicks List, my wife and I recently subjected ourselves to Meg Ryan's hilarious romantic comedy from the last century, 1994's squirm-worthy When a Man Loves a Woman.

What? It's not a comedy? Co-authored by Al Franken? Well, it got a few chuckles hereabouts. We would have called it merely a failed comedy for underperforming on the laugh-meter, but it looks like it was intended to be a failed drama all along. Mercy.

Poor Andy Garcia. At least his character recognizes he's being blamed for someone else's problem. All he does is work his butt off at a crappy job that keeps him away from home a lot (airline pilot.) He and his wife live in a beautiful home, with gravid, ethnic hired help. He provides as much love and support as can be expected, and what does he get for it? You're too good.

Dependable, loving husbands out there – you can't win.

So Meg goes into detox where she's exposed to an even more toxic activity: support groups. This is where she learns deadly phrases like "feelings about your feelings." The horror.

You could look at it one way; there is a kind of person who needs this emotional navel-gazing. They deserve our sympathy and understanding. Why, it's kind of like alcohol then, isn't it? It's a habit like any other. You use it as a tool to feel good about yourself, whether you deserve it or not. So, in this film, alcohol is merely what Meg's character uses to qualify for group therapy, scenes of which, in this movie, likely has more of that than any other on record.

In one particularly heavy-handed episode during Andy's visit to the detox emporium, and after hearing Meg say how much she admires these people, he's subjected to an impromptu group session with them. In a lounge with a crowd of such males watching a ballgame, he's almost immediately, with no dramatic build-up at all, hammered by the assembled doomed substance slaves, apparently for looking down on them.

They can tell, you see, just by the look on his face. As he states a couple of times in the movie, "Hey, this is my face."

One jerk of an unrecoverable lush — and we suspect the film's casting folks probably got a real alky for the part; apologies, but don't blame us for these cast-the-afflicted stunts — jumps to the conclusion that Andy is more used to watching ballgames with a beer in hand. Andy delicately refutes that.

The assembled alkys then quickly turn into an ugly mob, shouting at him that, as a non-drinker, he can't possibly understand what a living hell the disease is. But hey, he didn't say he never drank; he just said he "didn't drink that much." Don't fault a sensible consumer of a legal substance because abusers have hair triggers about it.

Though our elite Barfly Flick List is in no way a celebration of alcoholism, you can't be so pontifical and smug about it, especially with such sappy angst, and still hope to make the grade. Only in the first scene — which sets the tone by presenting the main couple as manipulative jerks — is anyone shown enjoying themselves, something the vast majority of alcohol consumers do.

It's not the chemical's fault that Meg Ryan's character perceives her just-about-perfect life as a mess, and blames everyone but herself. Her parents are nuts (her father, of course, is an alky). Her husband is too good.

Her kids – well, they're just unbearably adorable. She slaps one of them — seemingly for being so wiser-than-her-years and painfully cute in that annoying way Hollywood movie kids have — after washing down some aspirin with vodka, then falls through the glass shower doors, awkwardly and hilariously drunk. Well, if it wasn't for the poor kid witness — her cuteness through the ordeal is a testament to its irritating nature — and Meg's body/stunt double being embarrassingly naked, it would have been hilarious.

People enjoy alcohol and often enjoy the company of others who enjoy it as well. There are legal enterprises out there where these folks know they'll find each other. They're called bars. If Meg had just wandered down to her local for a bit of a buzz and then staggered home, she'd have been a lot better off. She would have that to look forward to every day after her crappy job in a school filled with precocious Hollywood teens that you just want to slap. As a bonus, everyone would have known where they could have found her.

You can't help yourself, or we couldn't anyway, muttering, "Geez, Meg, just shut up and go have a drink." After nearly two hours of this sturm und drang, the solution seems to have been that all she needed to do was come to terms with it and then cheat on her husband (emotionally) with Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman.) An easy one!

Through it all we never get a good handle on why the man-of-the-title actually loves the woman-of-the-title in the first place. Cast loveable Meg Ryan. That should be shorthand enough. Save at least five pages of exposition. If it weren't for the kids, though, Andy would have been gone like a shot. That's a stone lock. The implication is that if it weren’t for the second daughter, they wouldn't have been married at all. A wedding video shows Meg was gravid during the reception. (Who says it's impossible to sensibly use the word gravid twice in one post?)

Spoiler Alert: Avert the text between the asterisks to miss the spoiler.

Meg Ryan's character is a weak jerk, but she ends up triumphing in the end in a contrived, predictable ending where she gets everything she wants, including the ethnic housekeeper and kissy face with the housekeeper's newborn baby.

Poor Andy, the dependable hard-working husband who just takes an occasional drink, is sentenced to a lifetime of Al Anon meetings. Kill me now.

End Spoiler Alert

At any rate, we're writing far more about this movie than intended, which means it must have something going for it, but we suspect it's merely skillful manipulation. It gets the 80-proof juices going because it attacks something close to our heart: alcohol.

If alcoholism is a disease, then by all means treat it, but don't cynically exploit it to try and make masses of moviegoers succumb to guilt. There are many more interesting aspects of our relationship with alcohol that could have been explored in this movie — and are explored in the movies that have made our elite Barfly Flicks List.

Too much of When a Man Loves a Woman‘s dialogue was like a school filmstrip, with Meg or Andy communicating straight information as if they were reading from a couple of instructional pamphlets: one for suffering spouses of alcoholics and one for aspiring alcoholics. ("I drink a quart a day. It's vodka so you couldn't smell it.")

On the basis of cinematic self-loathing, the movie's application for our distilled and potent Barfly Flicks List is rejected. Only two have made the list so far, the seminal category-naming Barfly, and the delightful and earnest Indy outing, written and directed by Steve Buscemi, Trees Lounge.

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