Like many film critics, one of the most frequent invectives hurled my way goes something like this: “Why can’t you just enjoy a movie without overanalyzing every little thing?” Notwithstanding the fact that analysis is the only reason I sit through 90 percent of the movies I watch, I often wonder whether an overexposure to films plus the occupational compulsion to dissect every nuance eventually drains away the joy that made me want to become a film critic in the first place.
I still assert, unwaveringly, that Munich, United 93 and The Assassination of Jesse James were the best films over each of the past three years. But, I yearn for the days when my critique began and ended with such declaration as, Star Wars was the “most awesomest movie ever.”
Young@Heart does not feature exploding Death Stars or a search for the lost Ark of the Covenant. Frankly, it is grounded in the trite genre of Old People Doing Wacky Things and propelled by manipulative editing. However, I refuse to indulge the hard heart required to deride this wonderful piece of uplift. Simply put, I adore this film.
The New England-based Young at Heart Chorus is a collection of senior citizens who, after years of crooning show tunes and golden oldies, slowly achieved worldwide acclaim for their sold-out performances of contemporary and classic rock/ pop songs. Director Stephen Walker’s documentaryoriginally produced for British televisionfollows the group over the seven-week rehearsal period preceding a May 2006 concert in their hometown of Northampton, Mass.
There is an initial jolt of glee at the sight of dozens of octogenarians bellowing The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Yes We Can Can” by Allen Toussaint, while urged on by their 50-something director and benevolent taskmaster, Bob Cilman. There is shared puzzlement when Cilman introduces “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth onto the concert playlist. And there is poignancy in observing these children of World War II, having lived through the Vietnam and Iraq War eras, breathe unique meaning into the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”
However, the existence of the film and singing group underscores a juxtaposition of the unquenchable lust for life with the inevitability of death. While discussing an ill comrade during rehearsal, Cilman matter-of-factly asks how many in the group have ever had last rites prematurely administered. A lead singer’s impinging senility regularly causes him go blank during “Purple Haze.” “You don’t get out of this world alive,” quips Fred Knittle, an ailing ex-member who returns for the Northampton concert. And, to that end, two members pass away during the mere seven weeks captured by this documentary.
Those in the Young at Heart chorus transcend the fragility of life by forging a collective that is more enduring than its individual parts. A show at a local prison goes on even as the group learns of the death of a longtime member. The devil on my shoulder would like to chalk up the conspicuously pensive expressions on the inmates’ faces to Walker’s creative editing, a desire for jailhouse privileges and maybe the hope for some time off for good behavior. Pish-posh. During the concert finale, I defy anyone to choke back a lump in their throat during the tender rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You” as tribute to their fallen friends, accompanied by Knittle’s solo and the metronomic beat of his oxygen machine.
The world presents challenges both big and small, whether it is misbegotten wars, economic difficulties, mourning lost loved ones or reviewing the latest Garry Marshall rom-com. Staying young at heart might not solve all of life’s problems, but it helps makes life a little happier. Neil Morris
Young@Heart opens Friday in select theaters.
Could Helen Hunt be this year’s Adrienne Shelly? The late Shelly, after a notable career as an indie film actress, turned to writing and directing, and her 2007 romantic comedy Waitress was a sleeper hit that struck a chord in women and men who are old enough to be Juno’s parents. Hunt’s acting career was higher profile, but essentially boiled down to her years on the television sitcom Mad About You and the 1997 film As Good as It Gets, for which she and Jack Nicholson took home best acting Oscars.
After a quiet decade, Hunt emerges with Then She Found Me, which she wrote, directed, starred in and otherwise willed into being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s an actor’s film, filled with the kinds of long, complex scenes that give her stage-trained cast room to breathe. Very early on in the story, Hunt stages a powerful confrontation between her and Matthew Broderickplaying her weak-willed husbandthat goes on for several minutes without a cutaway. If you’ve ever visited a movie set, you’ll know scenes are typically shot in bits and pieces, a process that is infuriating for stage actors who find themselves on cameraclearly, Hunt is directing the film the way she wishes they were directed.
The script, too, is an actor’s script, which means that every major player has good lines and a good scene in which their characters are redeemed in some way. Hunt’s script has a good sense of pacing, of knowing where the jokes should be and when it’s time to cut away to the next beat. Like Waitress, and indeed, like As Good As it Gets, Hunt’s film is geared toward life’s second actthe lack of fulfillment after a first marriage, after a decade (or two or three) in the work force, after 20 years of childless adulthood. Hunt, who wrote her screenplay based on a novel by Elinor Lipman, plays April Epner, a pushing-40 elementary school teacher. April, who has recently married Ben (Broderick), a cherubic neighbor, has her sights set on motherhood. Despite her age, she spurns suggestions that she adopt, despite (and because of) her own status as an adopted child.
But before the film’s first half hour is up, April’s marriage is over, her mother is dead and she has two new people muscling into her life: Frank (Colin Firth), a single dad with kids at her school and continuing anger issues with his ex-wife; and Bernice (Bette Midler, divinely), April’s biological mother, who turns out to be daytime television celebrity who has trouble expressing genuine emotion, as opposed to the televised displays of empathy that have made her locally famous.
So that’s the story: men, babies and motherhood. Still, Hunt has managed to make the kind of New York domestic drama that Woody Allen often fumblesfor every Hannah and Her Sisters, there’s a couple of Melinda and Melindas. Allen’s ordinary city folkwhen he can bring himself to write themare never as convincing as Hunt’s small world of teachers and doctors and single parents. As the celebrity-within-the-movie, Midler’s performance hits a mostly perfect pitch of glib tenderness. And she gets to nurse one of the year’s better running gags, one that involves Steve McQueen.
As for Hunt, her performance in front of the camera is even braver than her multiple production duties. She’s still an attractive, fit woman, but those who remember the perky, wisecracking performer from a decade ago will be shocked by the unforgiving light with which she shoots herself, which reveals the sharpening angles and deepening lines on her face. It’s as if she realized Jack Nicholson was as good as it was going to get and responded by fleeing to Russia to operate an orphanage for 10 years. With any luck, Then She Found Me will be only the first film of Hunt’s directing career. David Fellerath
Then She Found Me opens Friday in select theaters.
Click play to watch the trailer (QuickTime)