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‘Men Don’t Leave’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 23, 1990

Paul Brickman's "Men Don't Leave" begins with a little in joke for married people. It's early morning, and the camera is looking down on Beth and John Macauley as they shift around under the sheets. Neither of them is quite awake, but after some sleepy words are exchanged, Beth hikes up her nightgown, grabs her husband's hand and plops it down on her back -- the universal signal for back scratching. Then, when he doesn't respond, she grips it again and wiggles it up and down on her skin, animating the inanimate.

The moment is small, perishable and exquisitely funny, but there's a whole life, a whole marriage, captured in it. It's a little miracle of observation, set in a movie that's filled with blessed little miracles.

The film takes on a serious subject -- a woman's attempts to repair her family after the death of her husband -- and, in places, its atmosphere verges on the tragic. But "Men Don't Leave," which was written by Brickman, who wrote and directed "Risky Business," and Barbara Benedek, who wrote the script for "The Big Chill," is a priceless combination -- a comedy that travels on raging emotional currents. It's a singular movie, really, and a richly satisfying one, with a landscape so familiar that you're almost surprised you don't recognize the houses from some television docudrama. Yet the manner in which Brickman has combined his deadpan eccentricity with the film's muted, packed-in-cotton tone is invigoratingly original.

What you notice first is how easily the filmmakers capture the everydayness of things. When a jelly jar lid is stuck, John (Tom Mason) gives it a he-man twist, can't budge it, then hands it to his 9-year-old son, Matt (Charlie Korsmo), whose surpassing strength prevails. But Brickman gets dynamics underneath the mundane details too. As a father, John seems nearly ideal, perhaps because he's still partly an irresponsible kid himself and still full of boyish impetuousness. The affectionate bond he has with Matt and his older, teenage son, Chris (Chris O'Donnell), is immediately evident.

The feeling they have for their mother (Jessica Lange) is apparent, too, but it's different between them. Enough so, in fact, that when Beth watches her husband through a window as he talks on the phone and, at the same time, wraps his boy around his neck, she can't help but feel, mixed in with her love, a twinge of loneliness and envy and resentment. Standing in her driveway, Beth is an awe-struck outsider, the only girl in an all-boys club, and what her face shows is her longing to be admitted, to be one of her own family's inner circle. Before she gets her chance, though, the game changes. Her husband is killed in an accident, and after struggling to withstand the flood of debts, she decides finally to sell the house and trade the suburban life for an un-air-conditioned apartment in downtown Baltimore.

The movie's true subject is devastation; it's about what happens when your whole world is destroyed and you still have to carry on. Initially, Beth does a pretty good job of keeping it all together. Without much in the way of work experience, she's forced to take a job with a catering company owned by a cigarette-sucking tyrant (Kathy Bates) who treats her with the kind of condescension usually reserved for feeble-minded children.

The gig doesn't pay much, though, and to make extra money, she slaves away after work making muffins. Left with a mother too zonked out to take care of them, the kids peel off on their own. After a whirlwind courtship -- which includes what has to be the only recreational X-ray in history -- Chris moves into a blissfully odd relationship with a older woman in their building (Joan Cusack). And Matt decides to rescue the family by winning the lottery, buying the tickets with the profits that he and a pal earn by selling the VCRs they steal after school.

In the meantime, Beth has struck up an acquaintance with Charlie (Arliss Howard). A combination of easy laid-back charm and adventurousness, Charlie is a musician from a slightly avant-garde world as inviting as it is foreign to anything she has previously known. He's a dreamboat -- self-assured, sensitive, romantic. But the affair isn't given a chance to blossom primarily because almost as soon as it begins, Beth is fired from her job and falls into bed, paralyzed with depression.

It's at this point -- when Beth begins to leave her dishes in the sink and not change her clothes -- that you begin to realize how magnificent Lange's performance is. As Lange plays her, Beth isn't a worldbeater; in fact, she's not sure what she is. Nobody else in the movies is as skilled as Lange at expressing the tangle of emotions behind the silences and shy awkwardness of a character such as Beth. This is painful, moving material and Lange doesn't censor or tidy up Beth's imperfections or her impulse to crawl in a hole. She gives them to you straight, contradictions and all.

The people around Lange are equally accomplished. Joan Cusack's Jody is a cherishable nut case. Whenever she speaks it's in hyper-slow cadences, as if she were teaching phonetics to chimpanzees. And at the end of every line there's a chipper upward inflection, like a little ski jump. It's how you imagine your shrink would like everybody to talk, unbearably straightforward and explicit. She's the perfect person, though, to rouse Beth out of her funk, precisely because she seems to be without nerve endings.

Howard is irresistibly amiable as Charlie. But regardless of how perfect he is, Brickman and Benedek have been smart enough not to make finding another man the answer to Beth's problems. Beth recovers slowly, like a patient coming out of a coma, and as she swims to the surface, we realize how deeply we had plunged in with her. The family that flocks around her is perhaps not the one she had expected, but it is restorative, even sustaining in its peculiarity. And the same can be said of the film itself. "Men Don't Leave" weaves an enthralling, resonant spell; it enfolds you completely in its characters' personalities, their jokes and their miseries. It's a heart-sounding, evocative work, and one of the best films about blows against the family ever made.

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