Blythe Danner and Alice Hoffman Let Me Down!

Here are  reviews of a film and a book that let me down. Sigh!

Directed by Brett Haley
Bleeker Street Films, 92 minutes, PG-13

I'm a huge Blythe Danner fan. I think she's a way better actress than her more famous daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, and in her youth she was more attractive. I was excited to see what sort of role she would play now that she's 72 (and still striking). Alas, there's very little that's as embarrassing as presenting elderly people as if they are twenty-somethings with wrinkles, which is what is done in I'll See You in My Dreams.  It centers on Carol Petersen (Danner), who has been widowed for twenty years and is bored out of her mind in sunny California. Her BFFs—Georgina (June Squibb), Sally (Rhea Perlman), and Rona (Mary Kay Place)—try to convince her to leave her house and move to their retirement community, but she can't imagine being in such a place. The death of her beloved dog, Hazel, is the tipping point. Something—anything—has to happen. She's so desperate that she even goes to a karaoke bar with Lloyd (Martin Starr) the young, lost guy who cleans her pool, where she dazzles patrons by reviving her youthful past as a singer. Will this be a December-April romance? There are creepy suggestions that might happen, but she begins a new relationship with a man her own age, Bill (the always delightful Sam Elliott). No spoilers here, but I will say that it doesn't go where you might expect.

The film is tagged with the line "life can begin at any age," but that's as deceptive as the film's vague title. Elliott and Banner have real chemistry together and Danner also has a few poignant scenes with her daughter Kath (Malin Akerman). These prevent the film from being a total train wreck, but more cars are derailed than remain on track. There are scenes of smoking pot, snide cougar jokes, a cringe-worthy speed dating setup, and giggly pleas to kiss-and-tell. I detest films that infantilize older people by treating them like post-menopausal teens, and this one gets added to that list. Not even Ms. Danner can redeem such offensive material.

By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 369 pages, #145169393591

I'm also a fan of Alice Hoffman's novels. By all indications, I should have loved this one. Its subject matter is a fictionalized look at Rachel Pomie, the mother of my very favorite Impressionist painter: Camille Pissaro. Rachel had a very unorthodox life, the early part of which reminded me of a Judy Collins song with the line, "My father always promised me/That we would live in France/We'd go boating by the Seine/And I would learn to dance." Rachel was born and raised on the Danish West Antilles island of St. Thomas—now one of the US Virgin Islands––and her Jewish merchant father indulged her dream to one day go to Paris. Life, as they say, had other plans. Her father's financial troubles led her to become the wife of Isaac Petit, a much older widower, while she was still in her early twenties. The marriage came with three young children and in the six years before Isaac died, Rachel bore three children of her own. She was a widow with six children under her care by the time she was 29!

The novel delves into marriages of convenience and passion, as her next connection was a lusty one to Isaac's nephew, Frédéric Manzano. Many islanders viewed the relationship as scandalous, but she bore four more children, the next to last of which was Camille. Toss in island experiences such as having a mixed race best friend and claiming Jewish European heritage (though she was probably Creole and her own children, including Camille, were forced to attend all-black schools) in a land full of dark-skinned descendants of slaves, and you have the elements of high drama.

Alas, I found Hoffman's treatment so dull that I managed to read just a third of the book before giving up. Hoffman's usual magical prose disappears in passages that are prosaically descriptive rather than illuminating. Perhaps the pace quickens when Rachel takes up with Frédéric but I bailed around page 120. The Marriage of Opposites has been compared to the works of Gabriel García Marquez, but from where I sit, such praise is badly misplaced.  But hey, not every Camille Pissaro painting was a masterpiece.

Rob Weir

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