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Extended Labor

Martha Coolidge and Geena Davis are slow to develop the promise of Angie

It's hard not to root for Angie, the new film by director Martha Coolidge. Its story has a handful of familiar elements: we're back among the Bensonhurst Italians, and our heroine, Angie Scacciapensieri (is that ethnic enough for you?) wants something more than the life her longtime boyfriend, Vinnie the plumber (James Gandolfini), has to offer. Stop me when this starts sounding like Moonstruck or the recent Mr. Wonderful, among numerous others. But the film's promoters have made us believe that Angie will be unique in its focus on the daily lives of women, and in its attention to pregnancy and birthing. In case you're wondering just how little esteem motherhood garners these days, ponder how few Hollywood movies present a pregnant lead character. Was Rosemary's Baby the last?

So yes, Angie sounded like a good idea, which made its disjointed first half (two-thirds, even) particularly disappointing. Apparently, Coolidge and writer Todd Graff couldn't decide what kind of story they were telling. They offer us ethnic, urban grit in Vinnie and in Angie's best pal, Tina (Aida Turturro), who is trapped in a joyless marriage with her nagging husband, Jerry (Michael Rispoli). But in the course of a single scene, the film staggers from a vibrator joke, during which Tina and Angie share a good laugh about how repulsive Jerry is and how glad Tina is to have a mechanical companion to replace him, to the moment in which Jerry enters the room, realizes he's being made the butt of humor and counterattacks by haranguing Tina about her weight. ("What's your dress size? Eighteen. That's a voting age, not a dress size.") Since the scene begins with a joke and ends with one, it might sound more coherent than it plays. But the combination of nasty, nagging harassment, along with the blast of pathos that comes when Jerry admits he's as big a loser as Angie and Tina see him to be, is awkward. The nastiness isn't funny, it's just nasty.

The same is true for much of the rest of the movie. Angie's Anglo stepmother, Kathy (Jenny O'Hara), is a wannabe Italian. But after 20 years of marriage she is still cutting her tomato sauce with ketchup and trying to make mini-pizzas with English muffins and cheese whiz. The edgy scenes between her and Angie (with Angie's dad in the background, pleading for "a little peace") land with the same thud as the Jerry scene. They have the structure and content of ethnic humor, but they're far too mean-spirited to make us laugh.

In fact, Angie's chief problem lies in its protagonist's character, as well as in the expectations raised by Hollywood casting and promotion. This movie seems to buy into the convention that Angie is too sensitive and fine a soul for the rough world of Bensonhurst, and the casting of a sympathetic comedienne such as Geena Davis in the lead reinforces this perception. But Angie's character is enigmatic. When she gets impregnated by her coarse boyfriend and is on the verge of finally marrying him, she responds by becoming a self-centered and self-deluding pain. She's nasty toward Vinnie, which makes sense, since she'll have to break up with him while carrying his baby (abortion isn't an issue here, perhaps because of Angie's lightly acknowledged Catholicism), but she's nasty to just about everyone else around her as well -- except for the man she meets and falls in love with.

Stephen Rea plays Noel, the cooler-than-cool international lawyer/artist Angie meets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her relationship with Vinnie has been set up as such a duality '-- he, loutish, she, sensitive -- that her mere presence in the museum is an act of defiance, a sign that she'll soon be kissing the father of her baby goodbye. Her relationship with Noel is such a movie cliche that I was about ready to give up on Angie. He's everything Vinnie isn't: funny, sensitive, ironic. In what feels like a thundering echo of Moonstruck, he takes her to her first ballet. Now in romantic-comedy land, the movie feels like Coolidge has changed her mind once again.

It's only after Angie has her baby and her life falls completely apart that the film finds itself, and turns dark. The audience will have suspected that Angie is a deeply flawed character long before the movie agrees. In this it recalls last year's Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas' madman leads us down a dark path, testing us to see how long we'll follow before turning against him. But that film's sympathy switch is handled more clearly, and so carries more of a blow. Angie doesn't go beyond the pale until way late in the film (her mothering gets off to a very bad start), and then it's too late to completely develop her character. But the switch does come, and the film does finally snap into focus, in the process becoming something more substantial and interesting than the standard feel-good film it at first threatens to be.

It's easy to see why the promotion department wanted to pass Angie off as a comic and contemporary look at motherhood. Single motherhood, even, a la Murphy Brown. A movie that presents as derelict a mother as Angie threatens to be is a tough sell. It's not clear if Coolidge felt the same qualms and couldn't bring herself to face the darkness in Angie until late in the game. But the film does get there, even if it takes a little longer than you might want, and several of its characters are redeemed in the process. I especially like the way Vinnie is allowed his dose of dignity after the baby is born.

Davis is problematic here. Her God-given irony works against the material, and her Brooklyn accent feels labored at times, especially in her voiceovers. Except for the lackluster Gandolfini, the rest of the cast is fine. Angie is an unusually mixed bag, one that finally becomes worth opening.

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