Helen Hunt’s directorial debut, Then She Found Me, is certainly impressive. It’s very well written, nicely paced and beautifully acted. Hunt displays a pleasantly unfussy style that suits the material, though a little more flash wouldn’t have hurt. There’s certainly never any sense that she’s showing off her filmmaking technique. On the debit side is the predictable low-key indie soundtrack, complete with rather drab soft-rock songs by Simon and Garfunkel knockoffs. I say predictable, because such soundtracks seem to go hand in hand with independent films in the 21st century. There is, however, a problem with the film—in which Hunt also stars—that’s more distracting than any other: Hunt’s appearance.
There’s nothing wrong with Hunt’s acting. She trades barbs with the best of them. She even held her own with Woody Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001). But to put it bluntly, the woman looks like hell in this picture. In fact, she looks older than Bette Midler, who’s playing her mother. I don’t like making this kind of personal observation, but it’s impossible not to realize that Hunt has no one to blame for her appearance in the film but herself. She’s thrust the camera in so cruelly close and so deliberately glammed down her look—no makeup and limp, shapeless hair—that it has to have been a conscious decision. I can’t decide whether she’s very brave or simply insane. In either case, she has done her film no favors.
That to one side, Then She Found Me is a darn good time at the movies. The screenplay—based on a novel by Elinor Lipman—is a little treasure trove of intelligent and witty lines, and a major treasure trove of constantly delightful and occasionally insightful plot developments. The story evolves on the basis of “it’s just one damned thing after another,” and it works well.
Without giving away any more than the trailer already reveals, Hunt plays April Epner, a 39-year-old woman with a burning desire to be a mother. The film begins with April married to a brand new husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick). The problem—apart from their seeming inability to conceive—is that 10 months into the marriage Ben decides he doesn’t want “this life,” and promptly leaves April. The very next day April meets Frank (Colin Firth), a well meaning but troubled father of two children who attend the school where she teaches. This meeting is quickly followed by the death of April’s mother (Lynn Cohen, Across the Universe). Complicating matters further, April’s birth mother, Bernice Graves (Bette Midler), shows up and, it turns out, April is pregnant by Ben. There’s more, but I’ll leave it to the film itself to fill that in.
In terms of plot, the film’s opening is an embarrassment of riches. The slight downside to that is that it makes Then She Found Me a bit front-loaded. There are still developments, twists and surprises to come—mostly in terms of characterizations—but the film has a hard time living up to such a fast-paced, convoluted opening. It manages, but only just.
The characters and the performances are what really make the film. The casting is brilliant. Putting reservations about Hunt’s glammed-down look aside, she is just right for April. The always-reliable Colin Firth gets to play a character of considerably more complexity than usual. Normally, Firth lands roles, like the one in the Bridget Jones films, where he’s mostly called upon to be solid and stoically charming. This is different. The repressed charm is still there, but the solidity is on very shaky ground, and Firth makes the most of it.
Matthew Broderick trades on his middle-aged boyishness to terrific effect. When wearing a ball cap, Broderick looks like nothing so much as an overaged Beaver Cleaver, which is exactly the right note for his man-boy of a character, whose idea of seeing the world and exploring his options consists of moving back in with his mother. It’s a tricky part and not an especially pleasant one. What makes the role particularly thorny is that this is far removed from the cozy country of Judd Apatow’s man-boys in films like Knocked Up (2007), where all that’s needed is a little push to get the character into manhood.
And then there’s Bette Midler, whose presence lights up any film, and certainly does so here. The still divine Miss M. has a field day as the minor celebrity talk-show host who is April’s biological mother. She manages to be outrageous—even preposterous—and yet she’s never less than human. Even her more fantasticated lies are believably human.
The ending might be a little pat, but in spite of this and the other relatively minor problems, all in all, Hunt’s film succeeds. It is one of the best, most intelligent movies out there right now. Rated R for language and some sexual content.