Reason watched: Andy Garcia, Ellen Burstyn, Philip Seymour Hoffman. But mostly Andy Garcia (sigh.)
Michael (Andy Garcia) is an airline pilot, Alice (Meg Ryan) works for the school system, and they have two little girls. They’re both basically very nice people. Alice is a helper, a counselor to teenagers. It’s no wonder she’s burned out and flirting with trouble. For somebody in a position of trust, she lets herself say some indiscreet things. A girl is looking for an excuse to accuse a boy of sexual harassment, and Alice sarcastically suggests that she entice the boy into trying to lift up her skirt. Definitely not cool. But she basically cares, that’s why she got into this line of work. She suffers from the frustration of realizing that some of these kids are beyond help.
When Alice stays out late drinking with a colleague, the excuse to go drinking isn’t the only reason. The friend needs to talk, and Alice wants to help. But she also causes Michael to miss a flying assignment, which is a serious mark against him. Things are starting to come apart.
Sometimes Michael is drawn into Alice’s wild spontaneity, and probably on some level convinces himself that he’s too buttoned-up and conventional, and it’s good for him to have a partner who’s a bit crazy. Their anniversary seems to bring Alice’s discontent to a crisis point. She leads Michael into helping her vandalize a neighbor’s car. This is some over-the-top behavior.
They go on vacation to de-stress. It’s night, and the most gorgeous man in the world, her very own husband, is rowing Alice around on a lake surrounded by sparkly lights. When drunk, Alice is not only bubbly and wildly cute, she can also be a real asshole. She’s standing up in the boat, taking a pugilistic stance, and of course falls in the water and of course he has to dive in and rescue her. Some romantic evening! Consequently, Alice promises to stop drinking so much. Hah.
Michael is such a cool guy. He says ALL the right things. It’s just that he doesn’t know when to stop. The part about responding beautifully when called upon, helping when help is needed and requested, he’s got that right. But he can’t stop there, and is always jumping in to help in situations where the very thing that pisses her off so much is the presumption that he knows better.
I understand Alice’s exasperation, because of an incident that happened. I was in a public place once with a supremely nice guy – very much like Michael in the movie. A stranger did something incredibly rude, behavior I had encountered in the past, and had made myself a vow never to tolerate again. And here it was. The jerk needed to be told what was what, and I was destined to be the one to tell him. If it was just me, I’d have cussed the stranger up one side and down the other.
But the nice guy asked me to let it go, so I did. We walked away. But my sense of mission was thwarted. I wanted a confrontation, wanted to be Woman Hear Me Roar. Of course, on some level, I also really didn’t want the nice guy to see me transmogrify into a raging harpy. But all this anger was still boiling around in me. I didn’t want somebody else to step in and decide what my response to a grievous provocation should be. I didn’t want to be protected by being gently led away. I understand Alice not wanting to be calmed down.
By the way, with such a horrible mother, how did Michael grow up to be so nice? That was surely a triumph of reincarnation over current-life family. If environmental influence were all, Michael would be even more of a mess than his wife Alice. And toward Alice, his mom is the classic poisonous mother-in-law. A quietly persistent bitch is worse than an occasionally flaring-up bitch any day of the week.
Michael arranges for the best alcoholic rehab money can buy. When Alice gets out, she doesn’t want to make love, and doesn’t want anything to do with him outside of bed, either. It’s not fair. That’s one of the horrible things that relatives of addicts need to face. You tried your best, and it still wasn’t enough. The unfairness can kill. He’s an enabler, but only in the most gentle, loving, best-intentioned way. He wants so badly to help, and winds up helping badly. Their troubles are not over. In fact, it gets so bad he has to move out. His good-byes to the children are heart-rending.
Michael comes to hear Alice’s six-month sober speech at AA, and they wind up snogging in the middle of the coffee break. You can tell that they will reconcile.
Loose end – But doesn’t he still have to move to Denver anyway to keep his job? So, does this imply that the family will move to Denver? It would certainly be great to get away from the toxic mother-in-law. Or are we to assume he’s going to take the other career alternative they had discussed, where he stays based in San Francisco and goes to work for a different airline, starting over at the bottom of the seniority ladder? Inquiring minds want to know.
The script was co-written by Al Franken, who had some experience with Al-Anon. He told Entertainment Weekly, ”I really began to understand about people’s pain and suffering and about how families that look normal aren’t.”