Cinema is littered with failed film made by big stars turned first-time directors. Eddie Murphy's 'Harlem Nights,' Ethan Hawke's 'The Hottest State,' Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh's 'The Anniversary Party' and Madonna's recent 'Filth & Wisdom' are just a few examples of arguably terrible movies that are clear reminders that sometimes, actors should stick to their day jobs. So it's a nice surprise when, every once in a while, a film made by a thespian comes along that actually isn't entirely dreadful. Helen Hunt's 'Then She Found Me' is just such a movie, one that's certainly flawed but made with such obvious passion that you want to cheer Hunt on just for getting more right than wrong.
Based on the book by Elinor Lipman, Hunt not only stars and directs, but also co-wrote the screenplay (with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin). She retains the basic structure of Lipman's novel if streamlining many of its subplots and characters. The premise veers into Woody Allen territory, a slice of Jewish urban angst that sees Hunt as New York schoolteacher April Epner, a recent divorcee whose ex-husband Benjamin (Matthew Broderick) left her because of her desire to have children, which is only compounded after her adoptive mother unexpectedly dies. Attempting to re-start her life, April finds herself in a myriad of dramedy complications, including the return of her intrusive biological mother (Bette Midler), her comically morose brother (Ben Shenkman) and a potential new boyfriend (Colin Firth) who is the father of one of her students.
The story of 'Then She Found Me' is nothing new. It's Female Empowerment 101, and had the tone been comedic, it could have just as easily starred Sandra Bullock. We can immediately anticipate all of the staple scenes to come, including April's first slapstick encounter with Midler, her meet-cute with Firth, and the eventual return of Benjamin, just at the moment when April will need to make her crucial romantic decision of whether to pursue her new suitor. Though Hunt's script and direction are blatant in bringing Lipman's spiritual and thematic concerns to the fore, which gives 'Then She Found Me' an intellectual bent rare for a romantic comedy, it remains a bit too precious to truly surmount the limitations of its genre.
Indeed, April herself can be insufferable. Her predicament is certainly relatable, but her lack of humor and warmth (which is not helped by Hunt, who can come off as a cold actress) is not. It's intriguing that, as she elaborates on the included audio commentary, Hunt labored for so many years to bring this story to the screen. April's realizations are ultimately not all that revelatory, and her frequent wallowing in self-pity often makes her seem a passive bystander in her own life rather than an active participant. It's often frustrating to watch, and the film's denouement just isn't emotionally transformative enough to truly make the journey worth it.
What Hunt does succeed in bringing to 'Then She Found Me' is insight and earnestness, sort of like a distaff Edward Burns movie but far less pretentious and grating. Hunt is refreshing in her lack of visual ticks and self-conscious camera moves, and instead aims for the immediacy of a stage play. Her style is workmanlike and unpretentious (the Woody Allen influence is clear), which allows the fine cast to shine. Though I find Midler simply annoying these days (ever since 'The First Wives Club,' she's played every role the same way), Firth brings a real charm to a potentially schlubby character, while the underrated Shenkman provides plenty of droll laughs. Ironically, Hunt's own performance suffers even more by comparison, as she sometimes feels overwhelmed by the other characters in the movie -- they steal the show.
'Then She Found Me' is ultimately a small movie in every sense of the word, but not quite a real sleeper. Its lead character is just too oft-putting, and the story's themes too off-the-rack. Yet at the same time, Hunt is so committed to her story and her filmmaking that 'Then She Found Me' is a film that you can't help but root for. It's refreshing to find a film these days whose maker truly seemed determined to make. I wish I could have fully embraced 'Then She Found Me,' but however imperfect, it's at least a work driven by passion not profit.
The definition of "small, people picture," 'Then She Found Me' is hardly the type of material that screams high-def. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is simply nice and pleasant, delivering a good-looking picture but nothing more.
The film has a realistic, non-stylized appearance. Colors are well-saturated and natural, if on the bland side. The transfer handles the palette well, however, with a clean look and accurate fleshtones. Detail is merely average, with a softness to the image which flattens out depth. The source is in good shape, however, with nice blacks and smooth contrast. Shadow delineation is average as well, with darker scenes offering little real fine texture. There are no major compression artifacts, and noise and edge enhancement are not problematic.
I didn't expect much from the audio on 'Then She Found Me,' but this is quite a strong English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit) soundtrack. It serves the material very well, and even has a few moments of inspired subtlety.
I liked how well-done discrete effects and atmosphere are, which gives this mix a surprisingly strong rear presence. The back channels are usually alive with minor effects or score bleed, and sometimes more pronounced moments. The quality of the recording is likewise impressive, with a wide dynamic range and low bass that is prominent but non-intrusive. Dialogue is also front-and-center, as it should be, with spoken words always intelligible and never overwhelmed by the rest of the mix. Sure, 'Then She Found Me' is not a demo disc, but it's hard to imagine the material could have been served more properly.
Magnolia has not provided an extensive set of supplements for 'Then She Found Me,' but the package is highlighted by an excellent audio commentary that is the star of the show. All materials are in full 1080 video, with optional English subtitles.
'Then She Found Me' is an small but engaging film, and a notable directorial debut for star Helen Hunt. This Blu-ray gives it a fine presentation, with good video and audio and a few worthwhile supplements. Still, 'Then She Found Me' isn't really material that calls out for a high-def presentation, but if you are in the mood for something different on Blu-ray this is worth a look.