She Is So Lovely: Nick Cassavetes’ Film, Starring Sean Penn, Travolta, and Robin Wright

As a serio-comic meditation on love and madness, She’s So Lovely is a slight romp that lacks the more profound ideas and rich subtext of John Cassavetes’ work.

A curiosity item, it stands more as an homage to Cassavetes than on its own merits. In the context of today’s cinema, both Hollywood and indie, She’s So Lovely is such an anomaly that the film betrays its 1970s origins, when it was written.

Twenty years ago, the triangle played by Sean Penn, Robin Wright-Penn and John Travolta would have been cast with Rowlands, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. There’s also thematic continuity: the female character played by Wright-Penn would evolve into Rowlands’ mad housewife in A Woman Under the Influence.

Cassavetes’ prevalent themes are present in She’s So Lovely, a movie that belongs to his microscopic studies of husbands and wives who love each other intensely but are incapable of expressing their feelings articulately. The film also displays Cassavetes’ romantic view of insanity, his belief that a fine line separates those who are “really” mentally ill from those who are so labelled by society. The central messy existence here belongs to a young working-class couple, Eddie (Penn) and his pregnant wife Maureen (Wright-Penn).

In the first scene, Maureen is hysterically looking for her husband who’s been missing for three days. A couple of drinks with her next-door neighbor lead to an attempted rape that leave Maureen shattered and bruised. Knowing Eddie’s dangerously unstable temper, Maureen avoids telling him the truth. When she does, he predictably loses control and goes on a wild spree, shooting a police officer, for which he’s thrown into an asylum.

Jumping ten years ahead, the second act finds a happily married Maureen as mother of three children, including the daughter Eddie had fathered. Maureen’s life is interrupted, when Eddie is released from the hospital and a meeting is arranged between the former lovers who have not kept in touch. Heated arguments about true love versus compromised marriage lead to a rushed ending in which Eddie and husband Joey (John Travolta) battle over Maureen. Her departure with Eddie is neither dramatically nor emotionally satisfying.

Cassavetes clearly wants to show there’s nothing like the purity of first love, but, the underwritten script feels unfinished, severely marred by a missing third act and lack of a point of view. Visually, too, the movie is incoherent, with two clearly distinguishable styles. The first act displays stylistic devices associated with Cassavetes pere: raw, dynamic staging, restless and brooding camera, mega close ups, self-indulgent acting, whereas the second, with its fluid framing and smooth pacing, represents a more conventional film.

Production designer Papamichael Sr., who had worked with Cassavetes pere, provides continuity, though consciously or not, Nick avoids the stylistic devices associated with his father. He shows respect for the smoothness of a well-constructed narrative, with the characters being properly introduced. There are no mega close-ups, no gruelling realism, and the tempo is quite relaxed.