Grace Under Pressure

Only three American actresses have proven to Hollywood they can attract large audiences by name recognition alone -- Demi Moore, Meg Ryan, and Julia Roberts. Moore is by far the worst of the three, a relentless publicity machine whose presence in wretched box-office triumphs such as Disclosure proves that moviegoers can suspend their disbelief sufficiently to enjoy one of her films in the same way they flip through a fashion magazine -- with an eye toward pose and appearance.

The marginally more talented Ryan functions as a Goldie Hawn for the Nineties -- an easily caricatured comedian-ditz whose sexual self-awareness masquerades as exquisite comic timing. That is, until she chooses to expose her limitations by forcing a series of unexpected career choices on us, most notably her perky descent into alcoholism in When a Man Loves a Woman.

If only by default, Roberts should be crowned the great hope for any American commercial film that aspires to offer an intelligent, dominant female perspective. Throughout her brief but meteoric career, the 27-year-old star has made mostly inferior movies, and yet she has managed to rise above each one with the clarity of her performances. From the trivial (Flatliners) to the offensive (Pretty Woman) to the intermittently intriguing (The Pelican Brief), she has demonstrated that her biggest asset is her on-screen mixture of self-doubt and rock-jawed pride. She inspires but doesn't intimidate, like the pretty, smart high school friend you knew would move on to greater things when she finally realized her potential.

Perhaps because, unlike Moore and Ryan, Roberts has suffered a memorable recent pair of critical and box-office failures (I Love Trouble, Ready to Wear), everyone now anticipates her tabloid disintegration. Her divorce from much-misunderstood musician Lyle Lovett; a disastrous goodwill trip to Haiti (she publicly demanded that a certain photographer be ejected because she recognized him as a paparazzo); an edgy triumph over the predictable ass-kissing treatment served up by talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey A all of it has fueled speculation that the much-chronicled Roberts already has hit her career peak.

It's anybody's guess whether her latest vehicle, Something to Talk About, will restore her box-office bankability, although this is perhaps the canniest project Roberts has yet signed on to. Take a gander at the other talent involved A Swedish director-turned-chronicler-of-American-family-angst Lasse Hallstrom (Once Around, What's Eating Gilbert Grape); Sven Nykvist, veteran cinematographer for Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen; screenwriter Callie Khouri, whose original script for Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise won her an Oscar; and actor-legends Robert Duvall and Gena Rowlands.

However, most people who see Something to Talk About won't be distracted by the contributions of any of these formidable names, which is the film's greatest achievement A you concentrate on what the characters say and do, until pretty soon you're pondering questions about the fragile nature of romance and commitment. The film is being advertised as a romantic comedy, but it's actually a comic look at an individual who learns by trial and error to pull herself out of the mire of romance (the idea of being "in love with love") and look at her own world with clear eyes.

Southern good girl Grace (Roberts) has done everything she's been expected to do for most of her short life. She works for her rich, old-fashioned parents (Duvall and Rowlands). She married the first man in high school who expressed an interest in her (Dennis Quaid), even though, as her potty-mouthed sister (Kyra Sedgwick) reminds her, his nickname was "Hound Dog." In fact, Grace has been speeding through life at 65 mph on autopilot A then, suddenly, quite by accident, she witnesses her husband kissing another woman. At that moment, the already overwhelmed heroine is pushed over the edge, and she begins a series of misadventures with family and friends that are sometimes humiliating, sometimes vindicating A but they're always unpopular with the people who pretend to know what's best for her.

Khouri has bestowed upon her actors the raw, witty dialogue that suggests women struggling underneath the yoke of male-defined expectations. There's no overt male-bashing along the lines of Thelma and Louise, which makes the feminist message of Something to Talk About much more seductive. The male characters here are portrayed with sympathy (especially Robert Duvall as the red-necked, land-owning, constantly disapproving daddy), despite the fact that they present tiresome complications for the women, all of whom just want to find some measure of peace and satisfaction.

Roberts is the gawky storm at the center of this wishful calm, a woman whose own thwarted adolescent ambitions are projected onto her young daughter. Khouri's biggest victory, and a proposition expanded on by the work of moody cinematographer Nykvist and director Hallstrom, is the unvarnished portrait of a woman "unfit for motherhood" and pretty much every other vocation she attempts. Grace finds herself constantly inadequate as a parent (she's wont to forget her child on hectic days), a wife, a sister, and a pillar of the community. But through the trauma of public humiliation she finds herself, and thanks to a wise, spirited performance by Roberts, the audience finds her, too -- a young woman who discovers constant delight in her own potential for mischief.

If there's a problem here, it's that Khouri's story meanders about fifteen minutes longer than it should, with a clumsy conclusion that validates the token independence for which Grace strives. For their part, Hallstrom and Nykvist belie their ignorance of the American South in portraying Grace and her eccentric family with somber autumnal tones.

Let's hope Julia Roberts receives the box-office approval she deserves for taking on such material. It's difficult to imagine that any other major female star could energize Something to Talk About the way she does, with such effortless, enthusiastic grace and salty determination.


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