Men Don't Leave

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 01/15/03 20:42:57

"It could have been great. It could have been a contender."
3 stars (Average)

When Patch Adams was released I found myself sitting in a lifeboat with maybe a dozen respected critics who thought the film was an unmitigated pile of shit, while beneath us a sea of easily-pleased, hopelessly emotionally-manipulated filmgoers seemed to drag us towards the falls of obsolescence. Could there really be a place for in the world of film for those of us that want more than cliché and formula? Were we really going to have to either give up speaking the truth about bad movies and just join the throng that says “it had a happy ending, so it was good”…? Thankfully, as time wore on many others of our ilk climbed out of the woodwork and pointed out what a farce Patch Adams was, how it forced the audience into sadness with cancer kids, then stuck a red nose on them and said everything would all be alright, but by that point Bicentennial Man was out and the process was repeating itself and all hope seemed lost. Men Don’t Leave is no Patch Adams – not by a long shot – but it does fall victim to that same old same old, where audiences feel good because they’re told to, don’t question the details and fall over themselves to cheer because it has a happy ending. And I’ll admit, at times I got sucked along…

A mother (Jessica Lange) of two boys (Chris O’Donnell and Charlie Korsmo) finds that the death of her husband leaves her in a debt nightmare, taking life from happy and contented to uncertain and depressing. Trying to deal with the mourning and the debt, she sells the home and car and moves the family to a crappy apartment in Baltimore, where she’s been promised a job. Only nobody wants to be in Baltimore.

There’s a story in William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade where he tells about his experience writing and working on The Great Waldo Pepper. Goldman tells of how he opened his story of the old flying barnstormer pilots with depictions of their frequent accidents, injuries and deaths. He tells how he wanted to prepare the audience for what was to come – where Waldo Pepper’s girl (Susan Sarandon) walks out onto the wing of his plane to perform a stunt, then freezes. The audience, according to Goldman, had loved the film to that point, cheering and laughing and being right there with it at every turn. When Pepper (played by Robert Redford) went out onto the wing to save the girl, the crowd was on the edge of their seat. As he reached out to grab her, they held their breath. As she turned to him, finally snapping out of her panic, they waited… and then suddenly she wasn’t on the wing anymore. She was gone. In Goldman’s words, “So was the audience… they were furious. They felt tricked, they felt betrayed, and they hated us. They just sat, sullen. For the first hour of the movie they were in love with us, and in that instant where the girl fell off the plane, the affair ended… We had given them something they didn’t want.”

And that’s my problem with Men Don’t Leave – that the writers, director and cast give the audience what they want, not what would have been real and thought-provoking and long-lasting. They took a story that was working and turned it into a pay-off where no pay-off should have existed. They happy-ending’ed us.

Performances by Arliss Howard, Kathy Bates and a definitely eye-opening appearance by Joan Cusack give the project a little spark and O’Donnell certainly impresses but surprisingly enough Lange drags things down to a place where only a formula finish can end things without the audience throwing fruit at the screen.

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