Touchstone Pictures // 1994 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 1st, 2000
Through the good times. Through the bad times. When a Man Loves a Woman it's for all times.
When a Man Loves a Woman is a hard movie to watch. Not because it isn't pretty, isn't a well-developed plot, or strong characters; but simply because of the hard look it takes at difficult subjects. I feel a bit like I'd run a marathon after watching it. That doesn't mean I didn't like the film, not at all. But I'd have to say to watch it you need a commitment to it, much like the commitment that the film tries to illustrate between it's two name stars. Disney does it's usual job of presenting the film on DVD; a pretty good but non-anamorphic transfer and a dearth of extras.
When a Man Loves a Woman opens with a seductively funny scene. Eating lunch at a San Francisco yuppie haunt, Meg Ryan (You've Got Mail, Courage Under Fire, French Kiss) is trying to read while deflecting passes from an inept suitor at the bar. Suddenly, as if from a romance novel, darkly handsome Andy Garcia (Desperate Measures, Hoodlum, Steal Big, Steal Little) glides in wearing a pilot's uniform, and with an unconventional approach, piques her interest. In minutes, Ryan is on his lap on the barstool, to the slack-jawed disbelief of the one who tried to start up a conversation with her. It turns out they're married, and that's the kind of spontaneous fun their relationship seems built on. As Alice and Michael Green, Ryan and Garcia play an upwardly mobile, happy, beautiful young couple in a perfect, still-passionate marriage with two young daughters. The idyllic existence goes downhill quickly, however, as Alice's alcoholism becomes more apparent. She had been hiding it well, and her husband's job that takes him away for days at a time also aided in her deception. But it becomes increasingly hard to hide, and it also becomes apparent that Michael has been her enabler by "wringing her out" as he says; fixing things when her drinking gets out of hand. Only a few shocking scenes of her downfall bring us to the point where she must confess all.
It's a relief for her to admit her addiction. She's been hiding it too long. Her husband is understanding and caring, again fixing things by arranging for her to check into a treatment facility. It's after Alice sobers up that Michael's problems begin. We have already seen how much in love he is, how attentive, how caring. But there is a darker side to his helpfulness. Although certainly she hid the volume of her drinking, there were enough scenes he was witness to that it becomes apparent that he to some degree condones it and enjoys being the person who fixes things. In recovery parlance, he is a classic enabler.
The film doesn't stop at the rehabilitation, unlike so many movies where recovery is treated as a fait accompli after hitting bottom and seeking treatment. As Alice leaves recovery, the real work of staying sober and learning about herself begins. As she grows as a person, along with the terrible mood swings and emotions of dealing day to day with her addiction, things grow ever more tense with Michael while she grows ever more adept at caring for her children. Let me interject here the fine scenes with the children, who really help keep the story from becoming merely about the couple. Both child actors are eminently believable, and the impact of both the alcoholism and the domestic problems on them add another dimension of this film, without muddying the story into an incoherent mess. But the problems both adults face are the main driving force, as each must reach deep inside themselves, and hope that their love is enough to survive the transformations that will occur from such inner search.
Ultimately the story is both a pointed look at alcoholism, recovery, and a study of romance and whether the couple can survive. The script co-written by Al Franken, who is famous for his Stuart Smalley character who is continually in recovery ("I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me") keeps things serious while exploring familiar turf.
I can't go further into the story without giving anything away, so I'll turn to the disc. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack was more than adequate to the material in this case, so I won't knock off points for an unneeded 5.1. The dialogue was perhaps a bit low but only when the score was also playing; and a bit of center channel boost fixed that.
As is usual with Disney discs, there is no anamorphic transfer, though the last couple discs I've reviewed were exceptions. It still looks very good, at least on standard 4:3 televisions. Except for the first long shots at least, which were so badly pixelated I feared the transfer might be among the worst I'd ever seen. Fortunately things never got that bad again. Also per Disney, a trailer and their lame "Reel Recommendations" are the extent of the extra content. The film deserved more.
As I wrote in the beginning, the film isn't an easy view. One fault I can find with it is that it tends to take too long in educating the viewer about alcoholism, which is so pervasive in society now that some elementary education wasn't necessary. It could have made the film move a bit faster relieving it of that burden.
The film isn't for everybody. Women will be likely to enjoy it more than men. I wouldn't go so far as to cry out "Chick Flick" on this one, though I admit it was the first words out of my mouth when I saw the cover. Still, watch this one with your significant other guys, and then claim credit for it the next time you want to pop in The Matrix. It's worth a rental. Whether it's worthy of purchase would depend on how much you like the film, since the disc doesn't add a lot to make it an easy choice.
Meg Ryan proves she is not just the queen of cute comedy with this performance. Andy Garcia also puts in a strong performance. The film is better than I'd expect from the mainstream minded Mouse House. Still, Disney is sentenced to lower sales than other studios for lack of anamorphic transfers and extra content.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer