Sunday, April 8, 2018
Upon watching my VHS copy for my previous 1993 review "King of the Hill", the only trailer featured on the tape was for "A Dangerous Woman". And since the film was on my list of films to cover from that year, I've decided to watch it, and make it my next review.
Martha (Debra Winger) is a mentally challenged woman who lives with her Aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey) in a small town, where she struggles to have a normal life because of her disability. After losing her job at the dry-cleaners for wrongly being accused of stealing money from the cash register; she meets an alcoholic handyman named Mackey (Gabriel Byrne) who later gets hired to fix the front porch of her aunt's house for a surprise party for a local politician that she has an affair with. She and Mackey slowly develop a love relationship, that's all new and exciting to her. But when Mackey sees a depressed and intoxicated Frances after her lover goes back to his wife, the two have sex which then leads to a set of tragic events for Martha.
The main reason why I decided to give this film a view was for Debra Winger's nominated Golden Globe performance as Martha. When I heard that this lovely actress was going to play a misfit woman with special needs, I was a bit skeptical going in. I was thinking that her performance was going to disappoint me just as much as Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar nominated performance in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" (and keep in mind that I know that DiCaprio wasn't as famous at the time as he is now, and respect that this performance helped boost his career in-spite of my feelings towards it) where I would be watching some pretty celebrity just playing a mentally challenged character in a matter so exaggerated (complete with thick glasses to make her stand-out as comically unusual) that it doesn't feel convincing. But from the moment when she first appeared on-screen, I was emotionally hooked to her character and stunned at how convincing her performance is. I've known and been around people like Martha who have similar special needs, and Winger does an authentic job at capturing Martha's intellectual impairment from how she reacts, thinks, talks, and moves. I honest to god, can't think of one moment where Winger goes over the top with this performance, or shows any signs that she's obviously acting. I strictly see her as the character, who the character herself is so sweet and helpless that I couldn't find myself resisting her wide-eyed child-like nature. And the amount of emotion that she brings to her character whether its showing anger and frustration of trying to prove to people that she's telling the truth since she can't lie, or showing confusion and wonder for when she sees or does something that's new to her, barley ever feels staged. I don't know why she wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this performance because this is a sensational performance, and she was robbed for not getting the nomination big time!
However, with the exception of Debra Winger's outstanding performance, the rest of the characters and performances in the film unfortunately don't leave the same impression as the protagonist does. The acting on the whole isn't bad, they all do a fair job at capturing their feelings towards Martha. But nothing about their performances stand-out for how generic or underdeveloped the characters are. Barbara Hershey as the Aunt seems legitimately frustrated with Martha, and the scene when she gets drunk and breaks down in front of Mackey is a powerful top notch performance. But her character is nothing more than just a typical motherly figure to Martha as their relationship and feelings for each other don't really change or develop that much, which makes it uninteresting. Gabriel Byrne as Martha's love interest Mackey though not a bad performance, seems to be lacking a variety of emotion and expressions (even when he's trying to emote or act drunk) as he's pretty much giving the same blank depressing expression and wooden line delivery in nearly every scene he's in. There are a good amount of times when he sounds upset and appears to be legitimately interested in Martha to prevent it from being a soulless performance, but even then there's such an overall dullness to his on-screen presence that the only person who seems to have plenty of life and emotion is the actors performing opposite of him. And though the film takes it time for Mackey and Martha to form a relationship, the love that they both share isn't really all that compelling for how everything involving him just happens to exist to move the plot forward, as he gives one speech after another about love and the pain he feels, which doesn't come off as effective for how monotone and dispassionate his performance is.
When Martha isn't arguing with her aunt, or falling in love the handyman, she spends most of the film trying to convince her best friend Birdie (Chloe Webb) that her boyfriend Getso (David Strathairn) is a lying and cheating petty crook, which she refuses to believe. Martha's desperation of trying to have her friend believe her is a gripping performance, but her relationship with Birdie isn't. It's not that Webb doesn't provide a naturalistic performance, it's mainly for how the film hardly ever shows the two bonding as close friends to make you feel emotionally upset about their break-up. There's like 4 short scenes of them bonding as friends, and right smack in the middle of the fourth scene when we see Birdie comforting Martha is where she turns her back on her, and this is before the film even reaches a half-hour. The friendship is there, but since their scenes are very short, it's easy to overlook that these two are close friends where her sudden change of heart towards Martha seems rushed to give this film some kind of conflict, as if her losing her job wasn't conflicting enough. As for Strathairn as Birdie's thief of a boyfriend, his character is nothing more than just a selfish punk with no redeeming qualities who's clearly in the film as a forced antagonist. But compared to the all other performances in the supporting cast in the film, Strathairn gives the second most memorable performance in the film for how he portrays this two faced con-artist. Jan Hooks cameo as the Make-up saleslady who scams Martha into buying make-up and changing her style is also very memorable for how smiley and quick she is. If I had to pick the film's most forgettable characters and performances, that would easily go to John Terry as the politician and Laurie Metcalf as his wife. Even though they are given scenes where they interact with Martha and her Aunt Frances (mainly involving Terry's character), there's not much character given them. The only scenes that these two appear is to either set-up the conflicts that will lead to key events in the story, or give exposition. For example, in the first scene of the movie, we witness the drunk wife destroy the porch with her car when she suspects her husband to be having an affair with Frances, which obviously leads to the need of her hiring Mackey to fix the porch. After that point, we don't ever see these two interact together ever again, until the party (after the porch is fixed) where the two just suddenly make-up and dance together right then and there with no conversation, that then results with Frances getting drunk and having sex with Mackey to start the love triangle conflict of the story. This couple act more as tools to the plot than they do as actual characters, which just makes the presence of them to be lazy since you'll only remember them because they're practically the cause for half of the important things that happen in the film, and nothing more.
The overall problem that this film has is its narrative and pacing. While watching the film, I got more of the vibe that I was watching the 2nd and 3rd acts to a 3 act film, with the first act being completely excluded. A part from the opening narration explaining a little about Martha's past, the film starts right away with the porch being destroyed, Martha almost resorting to violent measures out of fear, and her witnessing Frances having the affair with the politician. Though the opening was an attention grabber, I felt unsatisfied that this was the starting point when there's clearly so much history regarding Martha and the people in her life. It would've been so much interesting to at least have 30 minutes of the film be dedicated to Martha's youth and seeing how she became the woman she is currently before Mackey came into her life. I'd love to see her relationship with her Aunt Frances when she first took her in, or see more scenes with her working at the dry-cleaners and interacting with her best friend. Maybe perhaps have more scenes of her being looked down by society because of her disability. And given how this woman is shown to be violent when nervous (that's only established twice in the film) I'm curious to see what lead to her behaving this way. There's so much to be explored when regarding this woman's life and the people around her. But rather than starting from the beginning, this film starts in the middle when the actual plot begins to unwind. That wouldn't be a bad thing if the time with the characters were well spent to make them intriguing as you learn more about their past while being emotionally hooked to their current relationship, but as I clearly established before, the film doesn't.
Since a love triangle forms in the story, I was expecting it to be the major conflict for the film's third act. But to my surprise, that obstacle doesn't play as major of a role as it should have. If anything, that whole issue gets tossed aside very quickly. Without going into spoilers, rather than having the film focus on the relationship struggles with Martha, Mackey, and Frances; the film decides to take a sudden dark turn by having the last 20 minutes or so of the movie focus on murder, pregnancy, and prison. Admittedly this crazy turn of events was shocking and a bit suspenseful, but doesn't feel earned or even warranted. It seems that the film itself knew that Martha's life and love relationship wasn't engaging enough, so it decided to take the easy route of captivating audiences by resorting to violence and criminal charges to gain their attention. And as soon the murder scene started, the film's tone at that point changed so much that it felt like I was watching an episode of "Law and Order" for the remainder of the film until the very last scene in the movie where the film decides to switch back to its original chick-flick style of romance and drama.OVERALL THOUGHTS
The film is well made, but with the exception of Winger’s incredible performance, nothing else about the film stands-out. The characters are blandly generic; the acting while not bad doesn’t hit the same emotional chord when compared to Winger’s performance; the film’s look, tone, and atmosphere is boringly average, until the film decides to randomly change its tone and style for the climax; and the writing uses so many short-cuts to lazily move the plot forward that it downplays many of the characters and events that need more time and attention. Thank god that Winger's lovable character is in the center of the whole movie, because without her remarkably charming and realistic performance this film would be nothing.