"Don't be glib with me!" declares a character in
's ticking-biological-clock panic comedy Then She Found Me, and it's too bad Hunt didn't take her character's advice in the shaping of the film. For most of its running time, Then She Found Me stays safely within television sitcom glibness, the edges softened and motivations rigged into idiot-box coincidence and artificiality. It's Mad About You with home pregnancy test swabs.
Hunt is April Epner, a 39-year-old schoolteacher, married to Ben (Matthew Broderick
), the puffy, neighborhood schlub. April is childless and longs for "a baby that is really hers." Being an adopted daughter in a close-knit Jewish family (she envies Ben Shenkman's Freddy, the biological family brother), she wants the biological connection of a birth child. As the film begins, her mother Trudy (Lynn Cohen) is in the hospital, her father has died, and April's comfortable world is about to explode. Things go awry from the get-go when April, obsessed with getting pregnant, greets Ben at home with a nightie under her coat, eager for a surprise tumble. But Ben tops her by announcing his decision to leave their months old marriage. Things continue falling apart -- April juggling the death of Trudy, having an affair with the embittered, divorced Frank (Colin Firth
), and -- to top it all off -- the sudden appearance of April's biological mother, Bernice Graves, a brassy, unpretentious loudmouth and local talk-show hostess, played by Bette Midler
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There are real emotional issues churning in Then She Found Me, and the film could easily have been reconstituted as a melodramatic weeper. But Hunt keeps the pace breezy and light, mining the situations and hitting the all the laugh cues like a post-millennial Gene Saks or Herb Ross. When April tells Frank, "I need to sleep -- it's not going to get any worse than this," Hunt cuts to Trudy's funeral. A running gag features Hunt in her obstetrician's waiting room accompanied with assorted boyfriends and close relatives. You can almost check off the joke beats on a scorecard.
At certain points, Hunt pushes beyond the situation comedy shallowness by having her characters break into impassioned outbursts --Frank unexpectedly screams at April, Ben bursts into tears, April herself breaks down and weeps. But this is never enough to rupture the thick comedy skin drawn over the film like the casing of a kettledrum.
Hunt tries breaking loose and demystifies herself by appearing gaunt and without makeup, looking very convincingly like a worn out 40-year old -- her hangdog expression for most of the film resembling something out of a Kurosawa drama than a baby comedy. But even then, Hunt can't resist a smiling close-up (in a bumper car, even) and cute falling-in-love babble ("I sometimes make toast and tea after I brush my teeth and then I don't brush them anymore.").
One would figure the one thing that would tip the film over the edge would be the entrance of Midler. Surprisingly, the Midler in Then She Found Me is a quieter, gentler Midler. And, although there are lines in the film that seem to be written specifically for The Divine Ms. M, Midler invests Bernice with a tragic undertone that she squeezes out of the screenplay like tears from a damp handkerchief.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the film is Hunt's depiction of a Jewish family at ease with their faith (and without irony). Before an artificial insemination scene in the obstetrician's office, April and her attendants casually pause for a moment of Jewish prayer and in its connection and communion among the characters, it is the most affecting moment in Then She Found Me. It also makes one forget that Salman Rushdie, in a crazy bit of comic stunt casting, plays the obstetrician.
There are hints here that Helen Hunt could, perhaps, chomp down on a good cinematic meal. If only she would give birth to herself as a filmmaker and cut the umbilical cord attaching her to the womblike safety of the sitcom formula, then her next movie will be something to see.