Judge Patrick Bromley would take a lover, but his DVD player would get jealous.
Sometimes you have to break your vow to keep your promise.
Alan Jacobs's Nina Takes a Lover is not a typical film romance. That is because its lead actress, Laura San Giacomo (Just Shoot Me!), is not a typical movie star. With her wide-set eyes, gap-toothed, off-kilter smile, and husky alto voice, San Giacomo's presence in any film is undeniable—she's a force that has to be dealt with. Go back and watch some of her earlier films, as she all but steals every scene she appears in from sex, lies, and videotape to Quigley Down Under to—yes—even Pretty Woman. She's unpredictable and imperfect in the best way; like Gilmore Girls's Lauren Graham, she manages to make being flawed incredibly sexy.
Here she plays the titular Nina, who is seen at the film's opening as the subject of an interview, which we gradually learn to be about an affair she had. The man she has the affair with, played by Paul Rhys (From Hell), is a photographer she meets in the park while her husband is indisposed for a few weeks. It begins somewhat innocently, as affairs often will, with casual meetings—which graduate to planned meetings, which graduates to his finding her at work when she does not show up in the park one afternoon. The work encounter instantly makes things more personal—he has brought the battle to her doorstep, and she is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to resist any longer. The two begin their affair, and while it is physically exciting, it somehow goes deeper than that. She finds in the photographer a man wholly unlike the one she is married to ("I've learned more about my lover in three weeks than I've learned about my husband in years," she remarks to a friend). The relationship between the two reawakens feelings long thought forgotten within both of them.
Then comes a major twist in the story, which I will not reveal here, but which forces us to go back and rethink all the events of the film that have come before it. We have to consider the story through new eyes, so much so that a second viewing almost becomes necessary to make sense of it all. It's a clever twist, but I'm not sure if I buy it—it demands that I believe certain things about these characters that, given what I do know, I simply cannot easily accept. While I'm confident that the movie has in fact played fair, I can't help but think there may have been a better way to put the events of the film into the same thematic context; a more direct approach towards what is eventually revealed would have allowed for the entire film to carry the weight only allotted to the final act.
Writer/director Alan Jacobs (Just One Night) is clearly a Woody Allen fan, borrowing a few tricks from the director to tell his story. He uses title cards to separate the movie into chapters, a gimmick that's a red-flag Allen influence in just about any movie. The entire structure of Nina Takes a Lover is borrowed from Allen—it's told through flashbacks, with characters relaying stories back and forth to other characters (I know you 're thinking, "No, that's Rashomon," but see the film's atmosphere and tone and you'll know that it wasn't Kurosawa this director had in mind). The structure hurts the film more than helps it, especially in the first half, when playing out all of the action as stories and memories fails to give the events any immediacy—the scenes float above the story rather than ground themselves in it. It also prevents the film from finding its footing throughout the first half; a story that should belong only to Nina follows several other characters down tangential paths (too much time is given to the affair being had by Nina's best friend early on) and causing the movie to lose its focus. When Nina and her lover are finally allowed to take center stage, the film really starts to click, but by then nearly half of its running time has already elapsed.
Sony's release of Nina Takes a Lover, like a number of their other bare bones catalog releases, leaves something to be desired. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, enhanced for 16x9 playback; while it's not the worst offering I've seen from the studio, it's certainly not the best, either—once again, one is left wondering why they bothered to upgrade from VHS at all, if the results are going to be the same? The 2.0 Dolby surround track fares better, delivering the film's dialogue clearly and efficiently. Once again, like the other releases in this line, Sony has failed to include any extras beyond a few bonus trailers (not surprisingly, they're for Woody Allen movies).
The first half of the 1990s were crowded with the kind of talky, character-driven, writer/director pieces like Nina Takes a Lover (aided, no doubt, by the Sundance movement made popular by sex, lies, and videotape—incidentally the film that introduced Laura San Giacomo). As the films of that era go, I'd rank Jacobs's movie as a mild success, thanks in large part to the casting of his female lead. It's also smartly written and elegantly directed, but just doesn't resonate emotionally as much as it should have. I'm glad to have seen Nina Takes a Lover, but I don't know if it will remain with me for very long. I suppose affairs can be like that.
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