How realistic a portrait of substance abuse can a movie give when it features perky beauty Meg Ryan playing an alcoholic? That's the question raised by When a Man Loves a Woman. The always lovely, always breezy Ryan has never looked better than she does here -- which is a bit of a problem when her character is in the throes of the D.T.'s. As an adorably flaky single white female (When Harry Met Sally) or a wistfully romantic one (Sleepless in Seattle), Ryan is currently the best in the business. But in her more serious roles -- in The Doors, for example, or The Presidio -- she's noticeably lightweight. The closest she has come to holding her dramatic own was in last year's overlooked Flesh and Bone, but even there her benumbed searcher was as distractingly cute as she was believably gritty.
Ryan's forays into heavier material suggest that she doesn't want to be typecast as the enchanting love interest. Fine. But it doesn't do her much good to choose a script that has her tell how she was so drunk one day that while doing errands she somehow misplaced her daughter. Our witnessing this horrible moment -- what it does to her, to her daughter, to her family and friends -- would have been much more effective than hearing her recount it at an AA meeting. Nor does it help Ryan's credibility that during the very few moments we see her in detox she resembles a supermodel after aerobics class.
When a Man Loves a Woman wants to chronicle the hard road to recovery taken by both drinker and drinker's family, the latter being two attractive young daughters and a handsome, capable husband (Andy Garcia, in another emotionally intense performance). Yet the film over-generalizes the journey. In an early scene, director Luis Mandoki (whose interesting Gaby -- A Love Story is looking more and more like a fluke) goes overboard in his attempt to establish that Alice (Ryan) has a problem. She's gotten so blotto one night that when a car alarm goes off, she opens a bedroom window, screams, "It's one o'clock in the morning, people are trying to have sex up here," splatters the offending car with eggs, then proceeds to climb on top of the gooey automobile, her legs splayed, her bosom all buxom.
The entire first half of the movie is just as bald. Alice promises to go on the wagon but sneaks drinks from stashed bottles. She becomes irresponsible. She takes out the self-loathing symptoms of her disease on her husband, Michael (Garcia), and the kids. She -- and he -- finally admit that she needs help only after she blacks out in such a way that the world literally comes crashing in around her. It's surprising that the screenplay is so shallow and broad, given that Ronald Bass, whose credits include Rain Man and the touching The Joy Luck Club, co-authored it.
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When a Man Loves a Woman could have become more substantial in its second half, when Alice begins to deal with her problem. Visiting her at a detox center, Michael surveys the bizarre yet crucial clubbiness of the place and feels out of place, alienated, even jealous. When Alice comes home, their marriage falters even more, for Michael, in an attempt to be supportive, becomes overprotective and tells Alice that the hardest part is over. His stance: "My wife hurts, I need to say, "What's wrong, honey?" " Hers: "I'm not your problem to solve."
The material is rich, but unfortunately these crises are strung together rather than explored, summarized rather than dramatized. Potentially acute insights are neglected for more standard plot shufflings: the house becoming a mess as soon as Alice checks into the detox center; a supportive detox doctor turning out to be herself alcoholic; marriage counseling that doesn't work, AA that does, Al-Anon that's not given a chance until it's nearly too late; and predictable 12-step dialogue such as, "Ask me how much I want a drink right now" and "Just for five minutes I want to feel good."
When Alice passes out after the drinking binge that lands her in detox, her older daughter, who's in the room and rubbing her slapped-for-no-reason cheek, thinks she's dead. Later, the child witnesses her father smash liquor bottles, then joins him. It's a pity that the movie takes the easy way out by presenting the child as simply a victim, especially since nine-year-old Tina Majorino seems able to provide a thoroughly convincing performance.
In the end, though, all the performances have a slightly unrealistic Hollywood tinge, something that Clean and Sober, by far the best addict movie of recent years, managed to avoid. That film started with a clinic check-in, focused on one day at a time and starred the much-underrated Michael Keaton. Unlike Ryan, who teeters like a drunk and tries hard but unconvincingly to be one, Keaton shucked his well-known persona and allowed himself to be gamy. Whatever adjectives may apply to Meg Ryan, gamy is not one of them. It's not so much that When a Man Loves a Woman prettifies things. Rather, it doesn't allow Ryan to get realistically messy. And after shamelessly pulling its few punches, it even ends sentimentally. That's not a word that goes well with alcoholic.