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Stepping Lightly Around Love

Movie review: 'Living Out Loud' is a bright, unpredictable comedy that successfully pairs Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito.

October 30, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Don't treat me like I'm stupid, Bob," says Judith Nelson in the opening moments of "Living Out Loud," her husband lying to her and on the way to leaving after 16 years of marriage. But Bob's not the only one who treats Judith badly--she also does it to herself.

Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, "Living Out Loud" is a film of eccentric charm, a warm and sympathetic character comedy about romance, vulnerability and the odd turns the search for one's self can take. Natural and playful, ragged but alive, "Living" is the kind of unexpected but welcome picture that doesn't have points it wants to make so much as lives it wants to explore.

What's not unexpected about "Living," given LaGravenese's presence, is the quality of the writing, with scenes filled with surprising, sophisticated dialogue and an empathetic touch where relationships are concerned.

With credits including the adaptations of "Beloved," "The Horse Whisperer," "The Bridges of Madison County, "A Little Princess" and "Unstrung Heroes" (which this film most closely resembles), LaGravenese has written more often than not about the dilemmas of women's lives, a knowledge that gets put to use here.

A writer before he is anything else, LaGravenese has made his direction serve the dialogue, not the other way around, and a welcome change of pace that is. As a first-time director, LaGravenese has also made sure to surround himself with excellent support, including such veteran behind-the-scenes personnel as cinematographer John Bailey, composer George Fenton and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland (who does fine things with Judith's clothes). Also impressive is a cast that includes stars Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito and Queen Latifah and supporting players Martin Donovan and Elias Koteas.

It's Hunter who plays visiting nurse Judith, and as she copes with being left for a younger woman by caddish neurosurgeon husband Bob (poker-faced Donovan, perfectly cast), it seems a familiar role. Oppressed by the walls of her Fifth Avenue apartment, brittle, edgy and high-strung Judith shares her worries and fantasies, her fears of being invisible and the always-difficult New York question, "What if I wind up alone and wrinkled in Queens?"

What gets Judith through the early days is her love for the music of Liz Bailey, a Billie Holiday-type jazz singer who works out of a small club on the Upper West Side called Jaspers. Expertly played and sung by Queen Latifah in a series of exotic diva gowns, Liz Bailey's soulful way with standards like "Lush Life" and "Be Anything (But Be Mine)" acts as a kind of Greek chorus to Judith's uncertainties.

But one night at Jaspers, in an event that LaGravenese says was inspired by the Chekhov short story "The Kiss," Judith is passionately embraced by a man (Koteas in an against-type warm role) who has mistaken her for someone else but seems to want to know her better even after the misunderstanding is cleared up.

That kiss seems to open something up in Judith, so much so that she notices and begins to befriend the elevator operator in her building, someone we've already gotten to know as a kind-hearted, ill-starred man named Pat Francato (DeVito).

*

Though he doesn't share them with Judith at first, Pat has numerous troubles of his own. In serious debt to loan sharks, the father of a gravely ill daughter and living small after his wife of 25 years threw him out ("It kind of took the fun out of the marriage," he cracks), Pat still has dreams of being a success in business on his own terms.

If this sounds suspiciously like the start of an odd-couple cute-meet romance, it's a measure of the quality of "Living Out Loud" that what develops is a complex, fully human and unpredictable relationship. Roughly the same height but so physically dissimilar as to have come from separate universes, Hunter and her co-star turn out to work especially well with each other, and DeVito ends up giving one of the more low-key and appealing performances of his career.

But while "Living Out Loud" wouldn't be as successful as it is without those vivid performances from both DeVito and Latifah, it is Hunter's character the film is most interested in. As Judith interacts with a wide variety of New Yorkers, from her patients to a handsome specialist in erotic massage, her character starts to become more malleable, less brittle. It's a process rife with doubts, regrets and uncertainties, but in Hunter's accomplished hands, Judith begins to gradually, and believably, reclaim her sense of self and her own life.

None of this happens anywhere nearly that directly, for LaGravenese has elected to unfold his story in a quirky, completely unschematic way. "Living Out Loud" meanders through fantasy and reality, doing without rigorous plotting in favor of unexpected character moments. It's a film that knows its way around relationships, and it's difficult to ask for more than that.

* MPAA rating: R, for language and for some drug content and sexuality. Times guidelines: nudity in an erotic massage session.

'Living Out Loud'

Holly Hunter: Judith Nelson

Danny DeVito: Pat Francato

Queen Latifah: Liz Bailey

Martin Donovan: Bob Nelson

Elias Koteas: The Kisser

Richard Schiff: Philly

A Jersey Films production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Richard LaGravenese. Producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Screenplay Richard LaGravenese. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editors Jon Gregory, Lynzee Klingman. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Music George Fenton. Production design Nelson Coates. Art director Joseph Hodges. Set decorator Linda Lee Sutton. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

* Playing in selected theaters.

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