When a Man Loves a Woman opens with one of the oddest (and frankly, creepiest) meet-cutes I have ever seen in a movie: Alice (Meg Ryan), sitting at a bar in broad daylight (it looks like she’s just finished lunch), already wincing at unwanted attention from the guy sitting to her left at the counter, is approached by Michael (Andy Garcia), who asks her to pick up his laundry for him, bring it to his hotel room later that night. “I’ll pay you,” he says. “Thirty bucks. That oughta cover it.” At first, she’s irritated, and then she’s amused, flirting back.
Then – right after my boyfriend shouted, “Oh, come on, Meg!” and I scribbled something in my notebook about how women alone in bars are always assumed to be prostitutes – the scene takes a cutesty, unexpected turn. Alice asks Michael what he’ll do to make it worth her while, probably expecting him to respond with some fascinating information about his peen. Instead, he says, “I bake,” and offers to make her a cake. He’s wearing his pilot’s uniform, so you know it’s not going to happen that night.
Next scene, sure enough: two kids are watching the couple’s wedding video together, in which Alice is pregnant with the younger one. Jess, the older daughter (played by Tina Majorino!) tells the cake story again, saying, “That’s how much he wanted her.” “Why?” Casey (played by Mae Whitman!) says. Jess rolls her eyes. “Just look at her,” she says.
Not exactly the words of an eight-year-old, and when Jess isn’t being funny too-sophisticated, she’s breaking your heart, telling Alice she dislikes Grandma because “she puts you down, and I don’t like it,” and telling her sister, matter-of-factly, “It’s why she does all that stuff: why she talks like she’s sleepy, and forgets things, and when she gets sad,” when Michael’s sugarcoated definition of “alcoholism” doesn’t suffice.
Initially, Alice just looks like somebody who doesn’t know how to say “enough,” and is a little terrified herself of what that means. First, there’s the time she forgets to come home and relieve her (pregnant, Asian immigrant) nanny in time for Michael to leave for a flight. She’s embarrassed at first, but then sputters, “A lot of women have to deal with [kids, career, managing the household] but their husbands aren’t gone half the time.” So Michael takes her on vacation: while on vacation, too drunk on a rowboat, Alice falls out and nearly drowns. (Michael, of course, rescues her.) She resolves to stop drinking so much, taking long pulls off the vodka bottles hidden in corners throughout the house before rolling them up in paper and throwing them out on the curb.
But it’s not until she actually strikes Jess, then steps in to the shower and passes out – falling near-dead on the floor – that she finally confesses, from a hospital bed, the full extent of her drinking to Michael. “I have to be high to do anything,” she says. Still the rescuer, Michael promises Alice “the best treatment money can buy,” and dutifully trucks her off to a rehab facility.
But in the scenes that follow, it’s Alice who embraces change and Michael who’s working from the old scripts. He tells her during her first post-detox phone call that he can’t stop thinking about her “incredible body”; he continues to take over whenever the kids need attention or discipline. “You act like I’m pregnant or hysterical or made of glass,” she shouts at one point. (I love Meg Ryan, and have never seen her this caustic before; she’s amazing.)
It’s a rare film that begins its story in the middle of a relationship, and whose happy ending does not depend on one character’s white-hot epiphany and subsequent breathless confession (though we get something like that in the final scene). Instead, both characters’ roles in the relationship have to evolve. Gender is never explicitly discussed in the film, but Michael’s codependency is bundled with his masculinity, a reflexive desire to take charge and fix what’s wrong – and the movie suggests that the relationship can only be repaired after he backs off and lets Alice drive her own life.
That Michael and Alice both have the privilege to manage Alice’s addiction more seamlessly than many families is almost a given, but it too is constantly threatened: the nanny walks out, and Michael has to beg her to return; his boss constantly threatens him with rollbacks. Still, When a Man Loves a Woman isn’t easy watching, particularly for anybody who’s been close to an alcoholic. And it’s because the bulk of the movie is so ambiguous, because it explicitly resists easy answers (“I think I could love you again if you would just once say ‘I don’t know,’” Alice tells Michael) that the ending feels so forced and too-tidy, not to say a little odd. Of course, the first time I trieed to watch it, the disc was damaged, and I put off watching the second disc because I was hardly sure I could handle it a second time – but I made myself do it, because goddamn if I didn’t want a happy ending for these characters.
Previously: Teri Fahrendorf and the Pink Boots Society