In one particularly corny part of She Came to Me (Rebecca Miller, 2023), opening the Berlinale in a fit of painful embarrassment, Peter Dinklage’s character, Steven Lauddem, a notable composer currently suffering from writer’s block and walking the dog to break out of fixed ways of thinking, reflects (out loud) that perhaps every story on the streets of New York is the material for an opera; a treacly, wishy-washy sentiment with perhaps a kernel of truth in it.
The biggest problem is that She Came to Me, in its supposedly festival-ready format, is not the material for an opera. It’s the material for an expensive tax write-off.
The title of the film refers to an opera inside the film written after Lauddem — shy, reclusive, bothered, haughty — strikes up a conversation in a dive bar with a tugboat captain named Katrina (Marisa Tomei). Her whimsical, happy-go-lucky nature appeals to the stuck-in-his-ways Lauddem, especially as his therapist wife Patricia (Anne Hathaway) micromanages every moment of his schedule. But it turns out she’s not only addicted to tugging boats.
She’s a love and sex addict. While he is artistically inspired by the encounter, she continues to pursue him.
All the while, a parallel story emerges. His step-son Julian (Evan Ellison) is dating Tereza (Harlow Jane), the daughter of his wife’s Polish cleaner Magdalena (Joanna Kulig). They are very much in love, but this relationship is troubled by her uptight stenographer stepfather Trey (Brian d’Arcy James), who objects to their minor age difference and threatens to get the police involved.
It’s a lot of plot for a 102 minute movie. You could call it Shakespearean. I call it convoluted. Merely trying to preview the plot gave me a headache.
It’s a classic New York picture: the kind where you expect neurotic Jewish grandmothers and unemployed Italian uncles to be offering unwanted wisdom every five seconds; where the street is a place for magic; where marrying your therapist is just the way things are done; where life is the inspiration for art, but then that art comes back to bite you in the ass. Where uptight WASPs are the problem, and the Jews and the Catholics and the immigrants end up showing you what really matters. And there are many instances where an exaggerated look at the strangeness and mysteries of life can be pulled off really well. 1990s’ era Woody Allen films like Everybody Says I Love You (1996) and Celebrity (1998) come immediately to mind, as well as the Cher and Nicolas Cage-starring Italian-American classic Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987).
I love these movies. When they work, they work. But mixing comedy and tragedy and everything else into one big-old sentimental stew is a fiendishly difficult balance to get right. If you add too many ingredients while forgetting the spice and seasoning, it becomes slushy, inedible soup. Less matzo ball, more clam chowder.
Scenes begin at the wrong time, dramatic beats are in the wrong points, the overall feeling is unearned and the motivations are non-existent. A general sense of tonal inconsistency isn’t helped by meaningless switches between widescreen and academy ratio, or random zooms and pans that don’t augment scenes but completely distract from them.
It’s a bit like Katrina’s tugboat, which ambles between Baton Rouge and New York carrying bits of scrap metal, shower curtains, used appliances and all other manner of flotsam and jetsam.
Marisa Tomei is arguably the only actor who gets the assignment, inhabiting her character with the proper mixture of world-weariness and desperation. In a strange twist of fate, Lauddem criticises his soprano in rehearsals for not fully understanding her character — who is not a one-note sex addict, but a woman with far more charm and nuance. If only Miller read her own advice.
What’s even more bizarre about the inclusion is the fact that it so closely resembles the premise and feeling of Susanne Bier’s The Kindness of Strangers, which opened Berlinale 2019. Both films are set in New York. Both heavily feature Catholic faith. And both are filled with unearned moments whose grasps at profundity elicit more moans and suppressed laughs than genuine insight.
It’s somewhat understandable when a festival makes this mistake once. It’s utterly baffling when it does it all over again.
I sort of get it. It’s a mid-budget Hollywood film. The likes people claim don’t get made anymore. The irony is more get made than you think. They simply languish in festivals such as these, which suffer the slings of outrageously mean reviews in exchange for sizeable audiences brought by big-name stars. The Berlinale will be hoping the public buy their tickets before they see the reviews.