Rule #1. There are no rules.
Doesn't this contradict itself?
How to Deal is a flawed, uneven, and messy film that nevertheless contains enough good acting to recommend it. It pulled in respectable grosses at the box office and now here is on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Halley Martin (Mandy Moore, The Princess Diaries, A Walk to Remember) is a 17-year-old girl growing up with a strange family. Her father (Peter Gallagher from TV's The O.C. and films including Mr. Deeds) has left her mother (Allison Janney, The West Wing) for a much younger—not to mention clueless—woman. Her sister Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison, Moonlight Mile) is getting married to a bland bore. Best friend Scarlett (Alexandra Holden, The Hot Chick) is pregnant with her late boyfriend's baby and having to contend with a cold mother. Is it any wonder Halley believes there is no such thing as true love?
Enter Macon Forrester (Trent Ford), a basically nice guy who has a bit of a difficulty saying what he feels. He loves Halley, but he's in for a challenge in trying to convince her that love can exist.
The main weakness of How to Deal is Neena Beber's screenplay, adapted from two Sarah Dessen novels. Adapting a screenplay from two novels is not a new occurrence. Carlito's Way and JFK are prime examples. However, those were long films that were able to handle a large amount of material and several story strands. How to Deal barely clocks in at 101 minutes, which means Beber tries to pack too much into too short a time frame. Surely at the first draft level, she could have realized that Halley's pot-smoking grandmother could have been dropped with no harm to the basic story. Same with the romance between Janney and Dylan Baker; it's sweet, but inessential to this story.
That leads me to my next point. The tone of the film is inconsistent. It moves from comedy to drama, often uncomfortably and with little warning. It is possible to combine both genres into a single film. Billy Wilder was an expert at it, as was Paul Mazursky. However, they had a good sense of what would and wouldn't work within their main stories. Beber treats the story as a soap opera and throws in everything but the kitchen sink.
How to Deal was directed by Clare Kilner, a British director making her feature debut. She does as good a job as possible given the uneven script. She gets the most out of her actors and keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. Will Kilner have a career in Hollywood? In one of the supplements, Mandy Moore says that everyone will remember How to Deal as the first Clare Kilner film. It's a little premature, but I think Kilner does have a future. Hopefully, her instincts will improve with time.
The acting is what saves the picture. Usually when a pop star announces he or she wants to act, it elicits a groan from the cynic in me. Britney Spears's recent proclamation that she intends to continue her acting career after demonstrating in Crossroads that she completely lacks any talent is one of those examples. However, Mandy Moore has done the impossible; she has managed to convince the hardest cynics that she can indeed act and carry a film. A Walk to Remember first demonstrated this, and now How to Deal seals the deal, pun intended. Moore finds the correct tone for her character and maintains it throughout. (A controversy arose when she cut her hair, feeling it suited her character. The producers were extremely upset. Their reaction is idiocy at its finest, but that's another review.) She demonstrates a real ease and naturalness that many actors try hard to project, but cannot. Her performance is real and believable all the way through.
Allison Janney is famous as a TV star, but looking at her film work, she always makes interesting choices. The amazing thing about her performance is that she avoids the standard clichés of mothers in film. (Crossroads again contains the perfect example of the standard cliché.) This character is not an überbitch, but rather a fully human person with real feelings. As Scarlett, Alexandra Holden gives another solid performance that makes one wonder why she doesn't get more film work. And making his American debut (not counting Robert Altman's Gosford Park), English model turned actor Trent Ford gives a complex, low key performance as the potential object of Halley's desire. Peter Gallagher's character is played too often for laughs, and his over-the-top approach doesn't help. It's a shame, considering he's a reliable, talented actor. Same goes for Nina Foch.
New Line offers a choice of either full frame or 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The test disc I reviewed did not contain the full frame version (thank God). The widescreen version contains some of New Line's best transfer work to date. There are few defects such as scratches and specks, and hardly any grain. Colors look fine considering that eye-blinding color is not often used in modern film. The only culprit is some minor edge enhancement.
Audio is offered in your choice of either Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Surround stereo. It doesn't matter which one you choose, because both are equally effective at recreating the original theatrical experience. My only complaint is one scene in which a song is mixed a tad too loudly. Other than that, you will be satisfied.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The extra content is this disc's Achilles heel. There are quite a few extras here, but unfortunately, they are all unsatisfying. First is a commentary track by director Clare Kilner and actresses Mandy Moore and Alexandra Holden. It starts out well but, sadly, turns into a gigglefest. Unfortunately, they fail to let the listener in on the joke. It is truly the most irritating commentary track I have ever heard. There are some nuggets of information, but since they are so few and far between, I recommend you skip this track. Your ears will thank me later.
Four featurettes follow, all differing in size and scope:
'Macon' Trent is the most interesting since it takes the point of view of an English actor working on his first film in the U.S. Moore on Mandy is a typical fluff piece that you'd find on HBO or Showtime. To Be Clare shows director Kilner giving more insight into the film than she did on her commentary track. (A strong hint: go solo next time.) How to Deal With Literature is mainly a discussion about the highly lucrative young adult literature market. It's interesting at first, but it bogs down in tedium by the halfway point.
Two deleted scenes and two alternate endings follow, with the option of commentary from the Kilner/Moore/Holden team. It's easy to see why these clips remained on the cutting room floor. The two alternate endings are especially awful. And please, resist the temptation to turn on the commentary option.
Two music videos are included—Billy S (Skye Sweetnam) and Why Can't I? (Liz Phair)—neither of which made a dent on the charts. One question: why no Mandy Moore music video?
I don't think a purchase is the way to go here, especially with a $28.95 suggested retail price tag. I recommend renting How to Deal first, and if you like it, then by all means purchase it.
New Line is not guilty of presenting a fine video and audio presentation. However, they could learn a thing or two about creating more substantial extras.
Neena Beber is urged to return to screenwriting class to learn structure, and the ability to cut unnecessary plot threads.
Charges against the cast and director Clare Kilner are dropped.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary by Director Clare Kilner and Stars Mandy Moore and Alexandra Holden
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