Helen Hunt has made a career out of being agitated and frustrated, usually by men. Make that an award-winning career. It took Paul Reiser's neurotic New York husband to cajole four consecutive Emmys out of her during the sitcom "Mad About You," while Jack Nicholson's obsessive-compulsive writer annoyed her into an Oscar for As Good As It Gets.
With those sad eyes and weighted line readings, Hunt seems fueled by fluster. She delivers her lines as if in perpetual protestation, with the thought bubble "Why don't you just go fuck yourself?" hanging around her. (You would too if you had to pretend to fall in love with Woody Allen. Now that's acting.)
Ironically enough, for someone who thrives on such a somber mood, Hunt is more enjoyable in comedies than dramas. Comedies play with her histrionics; dramas simply overemphasize them.
But as she and everyone else prove in her directing debut, Then She Found Me, there's such a thing as balance. The movie lies in that abstract realm of the comedy-drama, and while Hunt shines in the funny moments and is a little maudlin in the dramatic, as her own director she's created a space for a natural performance. It's difficult to gauge whether this is because she's directing herself, or being directed by a woman. Either way, she takes Elinor Lipman's 1990 novel and creates a sympathetic portrayal of a woman more at war with her own emotions than any single man.
April Epner (Hunt) is going through one hell of a midlife crisis; by the end of the first act April has married, separated, lost her adoptive mother, met another man, been tracked down by her birth mother and learned that she's pregnant. (Maybe the film's title should have been Then the Plot Twists Found Me.) That's a lot of narrative entanglements to tease out, and it's to Hunt's credit as director and co-screenwriter (with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin) that the story doesn't feel too convoluted.
Schoolteacher April is a complicated person in a New York filled with complicated people. As an adoptee, she wonders what "real" motherhood feels like and wants to have a child of her own.
Her new husband, Ben (a nebbish Matthew Broderick), doesn't seem up to parenthood or anything adult. He leaves her, but not before a goodbye tryst that will come back to haunt her in countless ways.
Before we know it, April is not only flirting with Frank (Colin Firth), a single father, but also is discovered by her birth mother, Bernice (Bette Midler), a New York TV talk-show host just big enough to score interviews with celebrities. Bernice is everything April isn't: extravagant, vivacious, capricious, unworried, open. She's also a bull in a china shop, intruding in April's life with the best of intentions and not a sliver of tact.
As April warns Bernice, her life is too complicated to handle a relationship with her birth mother (especially one who's not altogether honest about their shared past).
The hits just keep on coming in Then She Found Me, and at one point you have to wonder if Hunt can keep everything together. But in an odd twist, she starts to simplify the narrative almost as quickly, turning her characters over to real human emotions and actions until everyone starts to listen to one another and work things out.
Hunt couldn't have done a better job of casting. Broderick is appropriately peripheral in the film as a little boy who can't grow up despite pushing 40. Firth brings all of his nervous energy to Frank, who, with two kids, probably has bigger problems than April. Their relationship – nonexistent in the book but added by Hunt – provides as good a gauge for her moving forward in life as her relationship with Bernice.
Midler is the real treat here, mainly because her modulation is so unexpected. The other actors have proven they can play to their strengths, but Midler in middle age has become something of a self-parody with her wild-eyed overacting. But her Bernice takes a sliver of that mania and tempers it with a good-intentioned heart. When April forces Bernice to come clean about why she was given up for adoption, Midler's face becomes flush with guilt, and those wild eyes are robbed of their glimmer.
Hunt is at her best when she blurs the lines of her comedic and serious acting tools. When she visits Ben at his overprotective mother's house, April wisecracks, "Can Ben come out and play?" You don't know whether to laugh or jump back.
Two Jewish stories told by Hunt in voice-over – one as a joke, the other dead serious – frame Then She Found Me. They speak to the power of faith, both in a higher power and in the ones we love. At first, April's prayers seem reserved for the easy things, like blessing food – praying for the hard stuff is what truly tests our faith. By the movie's end, we might be able to figure out whether April's prayers will be answered, but we're left hanging until the very last shot to learn how.
Despite all of Then She Found Me's twists and turns, Helen Hunt makes it worth the wait.