Sharply observed, if also a tad too earnest, Moonlight and Valentino is a sensitive comedy-drama about a timely issue: Coming to terms with deeply personal loss and its bitter aftermath. A terrific female cast, headed by a superlative Elizabeth Perkins, should help position this Gramercy release as a modestly popular film among women, though it's unlikely to reach the B.O. levels of the l991 sleeper, Fried Green Tomatoes, which still serves as the model for this sort of fare.
Critics who bemoan the lack of strong roles for women in mainstream Hollywood pictures should take note of l995, a year that began with Little Women and Boys on the Side and continues this fall with Moonlight and Valentino and the upcoming How to Make an American Quilt, Now and Then, Waiting to Exhale, and other pictures dominated by women.
Based on Ellen Simon's semi-autobiographical stageplay, story revolves around Rebecca Lott (Elizabeth Perkins), a young, attractive, happily married woman whose husband is hit by a car while jogging. The suddenness of his death renders Rebecca shell-shocked, confused, lonely, and disoriented, though, at first, she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the “W” (Widow) word to her eccentric best friend, Sylvie (Whoopi Goldberg).
For the first half an hour, the narrative perceptively records Rebecca's determination to get on with her life, specifically her career as a college professor. She's not all alone: In addition to Sylvie, Rebecca's immediate support group includes Lucy (Gwyneth Paltrow), her neurotic, virginal younger sister, and Alberta (Kathleen Turner), their overbearing former stepmother, a career woman who is pragmatic and down-to-earth to a fault. In a wonderfully astute scene, Alberta is the one who literally forces Rebecca, fearfully camped in the hallway, to face her bedroom–and her husband's death.
Rebecca's loss and heartfelt grief soon begin to reveal insecurities in everyone's life. A mother of three kids, Sylvie fears that her marriage is crumbling and that her hubby (unbilled Peter Coyote) will leave her. Still attached to her dead mom and resentful of the ball-busting Alberta, Lucy has her own hang-ups: deep anxiety about her body and bashful apprehension about dating men.
Things begin to change in pic's second part, when, as a birthday present for Rebecca, Alberta gutsily hires a sexy house painter (Jon Bon Jovi) to “spruce up her siding.” The presence of the mysterious hunk causes each of the four women to peel away her facade, confront her true identity–and ultimately share her innermost feelings and fantasies.
Though screenplay betrays its theatrical origins, Simon resists the temptation of constructing the women as broad types
(widow, virgin, divorcee, and wife), embodying each character with enough personal traits to function as well-rounded individuals. It's also a relief that scripter doesn't write like her famous father (Neil Simon) in his younger years. There are no one-liners and, for the most part, the humor stems directly from the intensely dramatic interactions. However, because the narrative is highly psychologistic, Simon periodically resorts to an overly clinical, cathartic treatment, with artificially induced conflicts and resolutions.
It's hard to fathom what attracted a filmmaker like David Anspaugh to this project for there isn't much in his resume (Hoosiers, Rudy) to indicate adeptness with such a female-oriented story. Indeed, as if to compensate for the lack of strong female parts in his former outings, helmer goes to the other extreme here and treat the yarn all too reverentially, endowing it with an overly solemn approach. Result is a film that, despite its healthy dosage of humor, unfolds at a slower, draggy pacing than the situations calls for.
Nonetheless, whatever else is wrong with the direction–and writing–is more than made up for by the stunning quartet of thesps. In what his possibly her most mature and nuanced work to date, Perkins shines as the young widow who has to go through the gamut of emotions before reaching a peaceful reconciliation with her new self. Whoopi Goldberg must be on a roll, as she follows her stellar turn in Boys on the Side with another performance that demonstrates her vulnerability and dramatic skills. When it comes to portraying strong, alluring women, few actresses can match Kathleen Turner, whose timing in delivering droll lines is nothing short of delicious. Though cast in the showiest role, Gwyneth Paltrow marvelously blends into the ensemble.
These four actresses ignite the screen with so much power–and charisma–that you wish the narrative allowed for more ensemble scenes, such as the emotionally satisfying denouement, and less issue-related scenes, in which two characters at a time expose–and reconcile–their tensions.
A Gramercy Pictures release of a Working Title Film production. Produced by Alison Owen, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan. Co-producer, Mary McLaglen. Directed by David Anspaugh. Screenplay, Ellen Simon, based on her stage play. Camera (Technicolor), Julio Macat; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, Howard Shore; production design, Robb Wilson King; art direction, David Ferguson; set decoration, Carol Lavoie; costume design, Denise Cronenberg; sound (Dolby), Bruce Carwardine; associate producer, Liza Chasin; assistant director, David J. Webb; casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at the GCC Beverly Connection, L.A., Sept. 25, 1995. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 104 min.
Rebecca Lott……….Elizabeth Perkins
Sylvie Morrow………..Whoopi Goldberg
Lucy Trager………….Gwyneth Paltrow
Alberta Russell………Kathleen Turner
The Painter…………….Jon Bon Jovi
Thomas Trager…………..Josef Sommer