Christian Slater and Mary Stuart Masterson are fine actors -- in Masterson's case, sometimes an inspired one -- who tend to do their best work in serious dramas and dark comedies. For all their talent and versatility, however, neither springs to mind immediately as an old-fashioned romantic movie lead. Indeed, the very novelty of seeing these two cast as tentative late-twentysomethings who may be looking for love in just the right place gives a certain edge to Bed of Roses' opening scenes. And that edge is only sharpened by the fact that, early on, Slater seems less like a lover than a stalker.
Masterson plays Lisa, a workaholic New York investment banker who, as the movie begins, is in England to swing her first really big deal. But she doesn't get much time to savor her triumph: right in the middle of her wrap-up talk with a big-bucks investor, she gets a phone call delivering news of a death in her family. She manages to hold up well, even during the flight home. But when she gets back to her apartment and finds that her goldfish has died, too -- well, that's more than even someone with Lisa's rigorous self-control can take. She breaks down into helpless sobs.
The next day at her office, she gets two surprises -- one pleasant, the other less so. The bad news, from her point of view, is her boss' insistence that she take a brief vacation to fully recover from her bereavement. (He's not being completely altruistic -- he wants her in top shape for the aforementioned big deal.) The good news, sort of, is the unexpected delivery of a lovely floral arrangement. Lisa is pleased, but puzzled. She's fairly certain that her sometime boyfriend (Josh Brolin), a workaholic even more obsessive than she is, would never make such a thoughtful gesture. (No kidding: Brolin sets off even fewer romantic sparks than Ralph Bellamy did back when he was Cary Grant's rival in love.) But she can't think of anyone else who would send her flowers. And the delivery man, Lewis (Slater), cannot, or will not, reveal the identity of her secret admirer.
Curiosity gives way to trepidation when Lisa awakens one night from a bad dream and sees Lewis standing on the street outside her window. The next morning she confronts him, and he admits that, yes, he was the one who sent the flowers. Why? Well, he likes to walk the streets late at night, gazing up at windows and wondering what the people are doing up there in their houses and apartments. One night, he looked up and saw Lisa crying. And he couldn't help wondering: what would make such a beautiful woman cry? And, more to the point, would a delivery of beautiful flowers make her feel better?
At this point in a more conventional film, an alarm bell would sound inside your head and you likely would be tempted to shout at the screen: "Get up and run, lady!" Because in a more conventional film, a strange guy who works this hard at being winsome and charming usually has a sharp carving knife tucked away somewhere and a few corpses buried in his flower garden. Obviously, Lisa has seen a few of those conventional movies, because for a few nervous moments, even she thinks it might be a wise move to beat a hasty retreat.
As their conversation continues, though, Lewis slowly, ingratiatingly eases into Lisa's (and the audience's) good graces. Slater has just enough charisma and sincerity to make Lewis come across as genuinely shy and unthreatening. And Masterson is more than skillful enough to make Lisa's willingness to spend the day with Lewis seem like rational behavior, not foolhardy recklessness. By the time they're back at his place, sharing a tender kiss in his elaborate rooftop garden, you may be willing to concede that, hey, maybe they really are made for each other.
That is, you might think that if playwright-turned-filmmaker Michael Goldenberg weren't so effective at subtly suggesting there's more here than meets the eye. By doing so, he sustains a sense of uneasiness that has nothing to do with any lingering suspicions that Lewis is a sweet-smiling killer. Goldenberg, making his debut as a feature film writer and director, means to play off the expectations of both his characters and his audience. To be sure, his affectingly moody comedy-drama starts out as an old-fashioned romance about two attractive opposites who meet cute, squabble spiritedly and then live happily ever after. But right from the start, Goldenberg also indicates that his leads are both going to be carrying some heavy emotional baggage with them into any new relationship. By doing that, he sounds the first intimations of his movie's central theme: sometimes the worst impediment to happily-ever-aftering is a profound skepticism that happiness really exists.
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Goldenberg has borrowed freely but wisely from the romantic comedies of yesteryear. He even gives his leading lady a delightfully contemporary version of the traditional wisecracking best friend. Pamela Segall, a sprightly newcomer who looks and sounds like a vest-pocket Demi Moore, plays Kim, the buddy who can't understand why Lisa is so reluctant to ride off into the sunset with her flower-bearing Prince Charming. Segall's scenes with Masterson crackle with the playful banter of longtime friends and are the funniest parts of the movie. Even in their amusing give and take, however, Goldenberg manages to reveal much about the anxieties that have made Lisa feel more at ease in professional rather than personal relationships.
For a short while, Bed of Roses seems to be a love story with an element of class consciousness. Fairly early, however, Goldenberg tosses this aside by revealing that Lewis wasn't always a happy but humble flower-shop owner. There was a time when he was even more successful than Lisa in the world of high finance. But then he opted to drop out, for reasons that are explained in a wrenching scene that, were it not placed just 40 minutes into the film, could have served as the emotionally satisfying conclusion.
The rest of Bed of Roses concentrates more on Lisa's past -- or, more specifically, on her eagerness to forget that past and her inability to unlearn the hard lessons it taught her. Slater and Masterson are so thoroughly engaging, and Goldenberg is so compelling a storyteller, that the audience winds up caring a great deal about whether these two damaged people can make a go of it. In that sense, Bed of Roses is a love story for the dysfunctional '90s, a glossy fairy tale that generates suspense by suggesting that Prince Charming may not be able to awaken Sleeping Beauty. This is a movie you should see with someone you love, or want to love, or want to fall in love with all over again. And don't be surprised if both of you are moist-eyed at the end. -- Joe Leydon
Bed of Roses. Directed by Michael Goldenberg. With Christian Slater and Mary Stuart Masterson. Rated PG. 87 minutes.