Thursday, April 30, 2015

Helen Hunt Takes a RIDE

Filmmaker Helen Hunt proves to be a subtle revolutionary.  RIDE is a worthwhile new movie about love and letting go.  In it, she whacks Hollywood ageism and female body-shaming upside the head with a surfboard.  The Oscar-winning actress stars in, wrote and directed Ride.
Yes, I am one of the millions watched Mad About You, the 1990s NBC sitcom, because I loved Helen Hunt's smart comedy style.  She blended that comedy style with dramatic depth to fine effect in James L. Brook's As Good As It Gets co-starring Jack Nicholson and Greg Kinnear.  The effect was so fine that she won the Oscar for Best Actress of 1997.  Hunt directed a few episodes of Mad About You.  She made her feature film debut as a director with 2007's Then She Found Me, a comedy/drama about adoption and birth parents.  Perhaps that film was a bit on the Lifetime TV side, but I felt that Hunt got one of the best, most honest performances out of Bette Midler since her Oscar-nominated 1979 work in The Rose.  She got Midler to do less and be the character.  Helen Hunt's second outing as a director is called Ride.  She should be proud of herself.  It's good.  Like James L. Brooks has done, she directed the film and wrote the screenplay.   Like Shirley MacLaine's Aurora Greenway in Brooks' Terms of Endearment, Jackie is a loving, single mother in middle age who refuses to cut the umbilical cord.  For divorced Jackie, a book editor in Manhattan, the cord stretches coast to coast -- from New York City to Santa Monica, California.  Angelo, her handsome and agitated son, loves her but he needs distance.  He's a freshman at New York University but he drops out of NYU and flies to the beaches of L.A.  His father lives in L.A. with his new wife.  Angelo wants to be a writer.
Jackie secretly follows her son to Southern California, bringing her uptight, blunt New York City attitude with her to the laid-back and relentlessly sunny culture of the West Coast.  We don't see any luggage but we know she's got some emotional baggage.  We know this from the brisk, intellectual way that mother and son bicker.  We also see their closeness when they bond to watch Young Frankenstein on TV.  Why won't she let go?  Why does he get such a wounded puppy dog look on his face when she challenges his need for separation?  Her goal to follow the son not only takes her to Los Angeles but she goes as far as to put on a wetsuit and follow him into the Santa Monica surf.

Keep in mind that she dearly loves him.  And she expresses this in non-traditional mom ways such as saying to him, with deep affection in her eyes, "You are the least shitty person that I know."  She doesn't have a car.  Her driver, Ramón, becomes a constant companion who helps her at the beach.  He's a totally cool and respectful dude played perfectly by David Zayas, the handsome and huggable bear of a versatile actor who some may recognize as having been a cast member on HBO's prison drama series, Oz and Showtime's Dexter.  Like Jackie. Ramón is a single parent.

The chemistry between actress/director Helen Hunt and David Zayas is so good that I hope they reteam in another project.

Jackie, being a typical concrete jungle New Yorker, has that extra dose of confidence that makes her believe there's nothing on the West Coast that she can't handle and do better than Californians do.  That changes when she needs to learn how to surf.  This sets us up for that always fascinating moment when the know-it-all parent is smacked down to a child-like level of cluelessness and is forced to shut up, listen and learn.  She gets her share of aches and pains but the surf lessons from no-nonsense Ian, played smoothly by Luke Wilson, are quite the learning experience.  He says, "I'm 37."  She replies, "I'm...not."

Here' a trailer for Ride.  By the way, Helen Hunt is 51 years old.  Brava, Ms. Hunt.

I mentioned the brisk way mother and son have of bickering in this movie.  It's fast and sophisticated dialogue -- like the mother and daughter bickering in James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment.  Brooks directed Hunt to an Oscar victory in his As Good As It Gets.  I bet she learned from and was inspired by his writing and directing style.  Just like in those two movies, we're laughing at a mother's way of mothering while trying to get through her daily life.  Then a serious matter comes up.  Like the ocean water,  there's more than what you see on the surface.  Getting to that matter is a little choppy, writing-wise.  I think we needed a scene with Angelo's father.  But Hunt's final scene on the surfboard brings it all together.  She delivers a funny, moving, honest performance.  Her skills as a director have grown considerably since her first outing.  Is it a great film, a classic like Terms of Endearment?  No.  Is it an entertaining film?  Most definitely.

Jackie's scenes with Ian were a sweet revolt against Hollywood ageism.  Brenton Thwaites plays Angelo, the son.  Let's face it -- he's a nice, trim box of eye-candy.                
I was absolutely thrilled to see that his summer romance was not a skinny, light-headed beach babe.  He went out with the girl who had some meat on her bones and some brains in her head.  Thank you, Helen Hunt!
That's what I meant about filmmaker Hunt being a subtle revolutionary.

When Jackie asked Ian what he wanted of his mother when he was in his 20s, he answered "For her to want nothing of me."  Hunt wrote a beautiful line there that resonated with me.  Do not think this Ride story is so far-fetched.  I grew up in Los Angeles and longed to get away so I could find my own life and hear my own voice in my head more than I heard my mother's. I wanted an on-camera TV career in New York City.  I started my professional TV career in Milwaukee after graduating from a university there.  Can you guess who left L.A. and moved to Milwaukee where she repeatedly reminded me that I was meant to be a writer instead of an on-camera TV talent?  You're correct.  My mother.  Sometimes there's no wackier or funnier fiction than real life.

This new movie has three other stars but they weren't seen onscreen.  Excellent work came from editor William Yeh, cinematographer Jas Shelton and the late surf cameraman Sonny Miller.  Miller died of a heart attack last year after completing Ride.

Ride -- from actress, director and screenwriter Helen Hunt -- opens Friday, May 1st.

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