p>Paul Brickman made an auspicious directing debut with Risky Business, the raunchy teen satire – also written by Brickman – that put Tom Cruise on the map. That was in 1983. Clearly Brickman takes his time deciding what to do for an encore. Men Don’t Leave, which he directed and co-wrote, doesn’t quite live up to seven years of expectations – the tear-jerking tendencies of co-writer Barbara Benedek, who created the excruciating Immediate Family, may have clouded his judgment. But Men reveals that Brickman hasn’t lost his visual style, offbeat humor and knack for bringing out a vivid intensity in actors.
After the histrionics or Music Box, it’s gratifying to watch the splendid Jessica Lange inhabit a role as comfortably as she does Beth Macauley. A recent widow, Beth moves her two sons, Chris and Matt, from the country to the big, bad city of Baltimore. She hires on at a gourmet shop run by an unrepentantly bitchy Kathy Bates, meets an amorous musician, appealingly played by Arliss Howard, and copes with the yearnings of ten-year-old Matt (Charlie Korsmo) for his dead father and the lustful stirrings of seventeen-year-old Chris (Chris O’Donnell) for Jody (Joan Cusack), the twentyish lab technician who lives in their building.
There’s not much Brickman can do with the trite woman-alone theme at the movie’s center. But he’s expert at keeping the periphery of the film percolating with quirky characters, antic wit and the pleasures of the unexpected. Cusack, who gets better with each film, is bewitching. At first we share Beth’s concern when this grown woman takes a boy to bed. But Jody’s attachment to Chris as lover, mother, sister and friend is too complicated for easy analysis. Thanks to Cusack, the character’s stength and decency come through. Bates and Howard also offer searching performances when they could have coasted by on surface mannerisms.
Still, Brickman takes the biggest emotional risks with the boys. Newcomers O’Donnell and Korsmo meet the challenge with a refreshing lack of pretense. When Matt runs away to the home he shared with his dad, Beth and Chris rush to find him. The situation is jerry-built, but the vision of this broken family standing in a silence flooded with memories has a fierce integrity. Brickman has made an imperfect movie but not an impersonal one. Combining humor and heartbreak with rare grace, Men Don’t Leave means to get under your skin and does.