Angie: Geena Davis as Ordinary Woman in Old-Fashioned Melodrama

In 1955, the Oscar Award for Best Picture was given to Delbert Mann’s Marty, a pedestrian film, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s script, about “ordinary” people. The novelty of a Hollywood movie about the working class might have explained the win. Or perhaps the fact that the competition that year was one of the weakest in Oscar’s history; The Rose Tattoo and Mister Roberts were among the other contenders.

“Marty” told the love story of a middle-aged bachelor-butcher (Ernest Borgnine) from the Bronx and a shy lonely teacher (Betsy Blair) after they meet in a dance hall. Some of my colleagues still quote Marty’s line to Clara (“you’re not really as much of a dog as you think you are”) as proof of Hollywood’s patronizing attitude to the “little” people, in this case Italian-Americans.

And now comes “Angie,” an old-fashioned, sentimental film whose eponymous heroine is in many ways the female equivalent of Marty. Except, and it’s a big exception, that the protagonist is played by Geena Davis, a glorious, stunningly looking movie star.

Born and raised in the tightly-knit neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Angie Scacciapensieri is a feisty, irreverent young woman with visions and fantasies that place her well above her social class. Restless with the routines of her life, she craves for art, for education, for meaning. Angie is close to her father (Philip Bosco), who has raised her after her mother’s sudden departure. The mother’s “disappearance” serves one of the film’s “mysteries” that Angie eventually unravels.

Angie has been dating Vinnie (James Gandolfini), her working-class boyfriend, for some time, but something crucial is missing from their relationship–passion and fulfillment. When Angie discovers she’s pregnant, Vinnie assumes there will be a big wedding. But to everyone’s surprise and dismay, she decides to have the baby out of the wedlock. An affair with a cultured, successful Irish lawyer (The Crying Game’s Stephen Rea) does help a bit, but soon there are complications and Angie is left alone.

Structured as a classic melodrama, Todd Graff’s screenplay, based on Avra Wing’s novel “Angie, I Says,” contains enough dark family secrets, self-discoveries, and transformations for an enjoyable woman’s film. Ultimately, though, Angie is just a routine message film, in which the heroine must learn to take responsibility for herself and for her baby.

The longest scene in the film, which is also designed as its central piece, describes Angie giving birth. The filmmakers reportedly conducted extensive research to make the experience authentic and Geena Davis prepared for the role by talking to women who had recently given birth and obstetricians; she even worked privately with a birth coach. The film is directed by Martha Coolidge in such a broad mode that you could mistake it for an episode right out of a TV soap opera.

Ten years ago, Coolidge made a nice film called Valley Girl, and three years ago she directed Rumbling Rose, starring Laura Dern. But most of her work lacks distinction, and I still can’t forget her flat film version of Lost in Yonkers, one of the worst movies last year. The material may call for a woman director, but Coolidge may not have been the right choice.

I can’t fault Geena Davis for she gives, as always, a full-bodied performance–her Brooklynese accent is flawless. But like so many Hollywood movies at present, the problem with Angie is that the filmmakers want to have the cake and eat it too. I’m also curious to know how feminist viewers of the l990s will perceive a film in which the ultimate experience is raising a child. At the end of this picture, you wonder what ever happened to Angie’s aspirations to have a better, more meaningful life.

“Angie” is a throwback to the old Hollywood movies about ethnic minorities in another way. Except for the first scene, in which Angie and her friend Tina are shown as little girls, there’s not much specific flavor of this neighborhood–unlike Spike Lee’s films that are set in Brooklyn or Robert De Niro’s recent “A Bronx Tale.”