Helen Hunt deserves a lot of credit for agreeing to look like hell in "Then She Found Me," though it's hard to see how she had any other choice. The movie, which she directed and co-wrote, never gives her a moment's rest. It's a whirl from the first scene - a chaotically photographed Jewish wedding of Brooklyn schoolteachers, April (Hunt) and Ben (Matthew Broderick) - to its last flurry of shots.
In almost no time, Ben tells April, who's been having a tough time conceiving, that he wants out of the marriage (Broderick's playing another one of his lumpy boy-men). Then they make love and he leaves. Hours later, she shows up at school only to discover he's left her with his class to teach in addition to hers. A scene later, a divorced parent (Colin Firth) sees April freaking out near the parking lot and gives her advice that she interprets as a come-on (she eventually tries dating him). Next: April's adoptive mother dies, her birth mother tries to establish contact after 39 years, and April finds out that she can get pregnant.
This all seems to happen in about 20 minutes, and things continue at that pace for another 80 or so. What ought to be a bittersweet movie about a woman's momentary unraveling feels like a workout class: Cardio melodrama.
Bring your emotional gym clothes. After it's announced that April's birth mother is a New York talk-show host played by Bette Midler, you'll need them. I was expecting Blythe Danner, Glenn Close, or a Redgrave sister, someone who might explain April's WASP-y features and uptight demeanor. Midler just confused me.
With her uncannily smooth face and Uzi-caliber line delivery, Midler is the Jewish mother as relentless diva, but hungry for love and surprisingly wise. It's a big improvement over her altruistic mommy in 1990's "Stella Dallas" remake. She energizes this movie the way a great entertainer ought to. But her energy - and the resentful way April reacts to it - also really made me think: What is up with Helen Hunt?
The idea that she could be Bette Midler's illegitimate daughter is like something out of Hollywood science-fiction. I try imagining Hunt flying around Radio City Music Hall in a motorized wheelchair wearing one of the Divine Miss M's shimmering mermaid tails and feel ridiculous. Hunt takes herself a lot more seriously than a woman with Midler's genes should.
"Then She Found Me" is Hunt's first movie as a director (she, Alice Arlen, and Victor Levin adapted it from Elinor Lipman's 1990 novel). She's given her movie the hectic pacing of her old sitcom. ("Mad at You," in fact, wouldn't be a bad title for this movie.) But amid all the chaos, Hunt provides the film natural rhythm and modest, down-to-earth scale. It's the size of an average, if overstuffed life. Occasionally, I thought about Elaine May's "A New Leaf" and "The Heartbreak Kid" while I watched it. Both directors' movies are about life's humiliations. May hit harder. Hunt hits harder on herself.
It's amazing that most of the screen acting she's done has been in comedies. The women she plays are too easily irritated by other people to find them funny, and too self-critical to laugh at themselves. She practices a kind of stressed-out comedy. But I don't always laugh. Watching her on "Mad About You," and in "As Good As It Gets," "Pay It Forward" (a comedy to me), "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and now here, my back started to tense up.
In "Then She Found Me," April is too uptight to let Firth's character love her. There's one adorably indicative scene where she lays in bed with him and his two kids. The actress opens her eyes, finds the daughter staring at her, and uncomfortably asks the little girl whether she wants a mint. That's Hunt at the movies: allergic to intimacy. Her struggle to surrender to Firth's single prince feels real. But she's trying so hard. This woman doesn't need a man. She needs a motorized wheelchair.