When a Man Loves a Woman: Starring Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia

Every movie reflects the zeitgeist of its time, and this is particularly so in the genre of the “problem film,” which usually revolves around a relevant social issue.

Take for instance popular Hollywood films about alcoholism: Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945) Susan Hayward’s star vehicle, I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), Blake Edwards’ 1962 Days of Wine and Roses, and the underestimated Clean and Sober (1988). Each of these films reflected the prevalent attitudes of its times toward addiction and rehabilitation.

Touchstone’s When a Man Loves a Woman, is a typical example of what happens when the wrong studio chooses a well-intentioned film about a significant problem. For starters, the picture has an inept titley; it makes the film sounds like a romantic comedy.

When we first meet Michael and Alice Green (Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan), they seem to be the ideal yuppie couple. She’s a junior school counselor, he’s an airline pilot for America West. They live in a beautiful San Francisco home and have two adorable daughters (one from Alice’s previous marriage). As a dual-career couple, they seem to have no major problems of time-management or money. After five years of marriage, they still exchange sexy, admiring looks.

But soon we begin to realize there are severe cracks, dirty secrets, beneath the glossy surface. After an evening out–and a number of drinks–Alice acts wildly, out of control. In the first sequences, the movie lures us into the story, written by Ron Bass and Al Franken, by titillation. It’s always intriguing to see the strategies addicted people use to hide their little secrets. Late at night, when Michael is asleep, Alice goes downstairs and pulls out the Vodka bottle she had hidden in the towel drawer.

The turning point and the film’s emotional climax is a scary shower scene in which the drunken Alice falls down and then, observed by her daughter, slaps her across the face. Confessing that she’s been an alcoholic form some time, she goes through detox and begins a lengthy and painful rehabilitation.

The narrative then switches to Michael’s point-of-view, which is one of the film’s innovations. Unlike other Hollywood movies, we don’t see much of Alice’s rehabilitation. Instead, we observe the effects of her problem on Michael, the children, and everyone around her.

Ultimately, When a Man Loves a Woman suffers from the genre’s most common weaknesses. The movie takes an overly therapeutic approach to its subject, using the lingo of Alcoholic Anonymous in abundance. To make sure we got the message, the filmmakers make Alice and Michael spell out the painful truth, “I am an alcoholic” and “I am married to an alcoholic,” at least three times.
The film contains the obligatory scenes of sessions at Alcoholic Anonymous, the intimate camaraderie that develops among addicted people, one that is perceived as threat by the significant others. But there also some fresh observations. I give the screenwriters credit for not resorting to facile explanations of Alice’s motivation to drink.

However, the portrait that emerges lacks credibility. Is it possible to live with somebody for five years and have an active sex life without ever noticing–or smelling–a trace of liquor. I also found it peculiar that Michael first becomes aware of Alice’s problem during their vacation in Mexico. Don’t people drink more when they vacation, especially in Mexico; vacations are meant to provide legitimate excuse for (mis)conduct. And the concluding scene, which can’t be revealed here, rings so false it almost negates everything that preceded it.

Unfairly, the movie dumps on Michael, who is portrayed as sensitive, loving, and too supportive. There’s a sad moment, when Michael realizes that the kids have been more aware of Alice’s excessive drinking than he ever was. But the film doesn’t stress strongly enough that he’s basically in a no-win situation.

Meg Ryan is cast in the better and richer part, one that should call the Academy’s immediate attention. In my book on the Oscar Awards (And the Winner Is), I documented with great fun the large number of actresses who have received Oscar nominations and awards for portraying dipsomaniacs.

As for Andy Garcia, he endows his role with sensitivity and compassion, but he still acts and carries himself as a supporting actor. As a result, his performance is not as dominant or impressive as it should have been.

Though When a Man Loves a Woman is severely flawed, it still boasts some achievements. The film represents a stretch for Meg Ryan, an actress who has so far excelled in comedies. And it is a refreshing, most welcome deviation from Disney’s formula and children movies.