She's So Lovely

What to make of this tear-ass comic romance? Sean Penn won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his hotblooded and heartfelt performance as Eddie Quinn, a fool for love. Directed by Nick Cassavetes from a script by his late father, John Cassavetes, She's So Lovely is filled with such fools. Eddie's wife, Maureen, played by the incandescent Robin Wright Penn, is pregnant, living in a fleabag, dodging a lech neighbor (James Gandolfini) and wondering if Eddie will come home drunk, psychotic or ready to take her dancing because it makes her eyes shine. No matter. She loves Eddie, even when one of his violent rampages lands him in an asylum.

Jump ahead 10 years and we find that Maureen also loves Joey (John Travolta), the likable lug she later married. Joey provides a home in the 'burbs for Maureen, their two kids and Eddie's daughter, Jeanie (Kelsey Mulrooney). Now, Eddie is out of the nut house, if only marginally less nuts. Eddie wants Maureen; Maureen wants Eddie; Joey wants Maureen. It's a helluva fight.

It's also love, Cassavetes style. John Cassavetes, who died in 1989, left behind a body of influential independent films, including Shadows, Faces, Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence, that celebrated the heart in torment. For those who are unfamiliar with the work of this rebel actor-writer-director and his passion for improvisatorial flights into the wild blue of human behavior, the film may seem crazier than Eddie.

In reality, it is a valentine from a son to a father. Nick Cassavetes is an actor — that's him in Face/Off — who made his debut behind the camera last year with Unhook the Stars, starring his mother, Gena Rowlands. This gifted actress, who appeared in most of her husband's films, has a haunting scene with Penn in She's So Lovely. Bringing his father's script to the screen is clearly a labor of love for Nick Cassavetes — and for the actors, as well. Penn has wanted to play Eddie for years. Wright Penn evokes the fire of the young Rowlands in Maureen. And Travolta, slipping in late, is dynamite in the best Cassavetes sense — outrageous but always in character. He can tell 9-year-old Jeanie, "Shut up and drink your beer," and make it sound endearing.

The three stars could not be better, which is as it should be. John Cassavetes urged actors to mold his material until they made it their own. Yet the film has been clobbered with complaints: John Cassavetes, Rowlands and their frequent co-star Peter Falk would have played these roles better; the script is old hat; the improvisatorial style smacks of self-indulgence masked as raw truth. Blah, blah, blah. The detractors should shut up and drink their beer or at least accept She's So Lovely for what it is: a gift.