Hollywood has never been comfortable with movies about alcoholism (for a while, at least, the films have only one place to go: down). And perhaps it’s because melodramas of addiction come along so rarely that they inevitably showcase the attitudes of their time. In The Lost Weekend (1945), the Ray Milland hero was a doomed sinner-pariah slithering into pubs for one more shot of the demon drink. The Days of Wine and Roses (1962) moved the lush life into the bosom of America’s postwar middle class. The ’80s gave us Clean and Sober, with Michael Keaton as a coke-addled hotshot hooked on the fast-lane spirit of an era. And now, just as the entire country seems obsessed with relinquishing its indulgent bad habits, we have When A Man Loves A Woman, a message-movie soap opera so drenched in the buffered language of recovery that the characters can’t open their mouths without sounding like they’re in the middle of a therapy session.
Michael and Alice Green (Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan) appear to be the perfect yuppie couple. They live in a cozy San Francisco home and have two lovely young daughters. They’re passionate about their jobs (he’s an airline pilot, she’s a junior-high guidance counselor). And after five years of marriage, they still look at each other with the sexy adoration of high school sweethearts. But Alice has a dirty secret: She drinks from the moment she gets up. There’s an inherent drama in the spectacle of human degradation, so it’s riveting to see Alice sneak downstairs to swig from the bottle she has hidden in the towel drawer. When her addiction is discovered, she goes into detox, and the movie becomes the story of how her agonizing recovery tears apart a family that was never what it seemed in the first place.
Written by the odd-couple team of Ronald Bass (Rain Man) and Al Franken (Saturday Night Live), and directed by the lugubrious button-pusher Luis Mandoki (White Palace), When a Man Loves a Woman is the first movie about alcoholism that seems based less on the experience of addiction than on the experience of talking about addiction; it plays like the world’s longest commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet the filmmakers might have gotten by with their glum therapeutic earnestness if they’d at least offered a believable portrait of the horrors of alcoholism. The folly of the movie is that its clinical details don’t ring true.
How, for instance, is it possible that Alice could drink all day long and hide it from a husband as attentive as Michael? (Are we supposed to believe her claim that she fooled him by drinking vodka—which, though relatively odorless, is hardly undetectable?) Other details are off emotionally. Nothing in Ryan’s sunny, placid presence convinced me that, smashed, Alice would whack her daughter across the face: It’s a scene too calculated to rile us. And why, of all moments, would Michael first notice Alice’s problem during a weeklong Mexican getaway? If there’s ever a time when excess drinking can pass as ”normal,” it’s on a tropical vacation.
The glitches—the scenes that don’t track—all are traceable to the film’s overriding flaw: its facile, hindsight depiction of Michael as an ”enabler” who unconsciously provided a cushion for his wife’s disease. When Alice gets out of detox, she laces into him for being too paternally intent on helping her get past her problems. He’s accused of being too sensitive, too supportive—in short, of caring too much. This is a view that grows right out of the labyrinthine self-critical philosophy of groups like AA and Al-Anon. Except that Andy Garcia’s tender charisma completely undercuts it. Michael looks at Alice with a gaze of such pure, unmitigated love—indeed, that gaze may turn out to be the film’s selling point—that it’s impossible to see his behavior as working in dysfunctional consort with hers. When a Man Loves a Woman is so eager to say that alcoholism isn’t just the problem of the drinker, that it’s the problem of everyone around her, that it fails to confront the true mystery—and drama—of addiction: the spiritual emptiness that drives people to drink in the first place. Getting sober is one thing; but you can’t make a good movie simply by following 12 steps.