Rebecca Miller writes and directs a perplexing but never boring comedy about a composer with a devastating case of writer’s block.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the work being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Seven films into her career as a filmmaker and Rebecca Miller is still a perplexing study. From 1995’s Angela, her symbolic unpacking of a lost childhood (presumably her own) to 2015’s Maggie’s Plan, a symbolic study of a desire for independence (presumably her own), she’s made female pain and pleasure her subject without ever settling on a formal approach. Miller is an auteur in the sense that the peculiar combination of confrontational sexuality and highly personal discursiveness seem like the province of someone who both knows exactly what kind of things she wants people to think about, even if she’s never decided the way she wants us to think about them, other than “immediately.”
She Came To Me, her best impression of a post-Woody Allen screwball comedy of manners and ideas, is Miller’s most singular and enervating effort since Angela. What’s most curious is that after all of these explorations of the troubles of contemporary femininity, Miller seems no surer of human behavior, or the reason she turns to cinema to explore it, but give her this: she’s never predictable.
Steven Lauddem (Peter Dinklage) is a composer experiencing a flamboyant case of writer’s block. He’s a nervous wreck, and so prone to panic attacks that he married his therapist Patricia (Anne Hathaway), whom he affectionately calls “Doc,” as if to constantly remind everybody of the queasy ethics of that. Her son Julian (Evan Ellison) is dating his classmate Tereza (Harlow Jane) and their relationship is the opposite of his parents’. Where Pat and Steven are regimented and clinical (they only have sex on certain days of the week), the kids are always loving and affectionate.
This presents a problem for Tereza’s stepfather Trey (Brian d’Arcy James), the latest in a long line of martinet father figures in Miller’s cinema. Trey is a court reporter and a backseat attorney, so when he finds out his 16 year-old stepdaughter’s been having sex with an 18 year-old, he calls the police. This would be enough plot for one drama, but I haven’t even mentioned how Steven cures his writer’s block. He meets an ex-con tugboat captain named Katrina (Marisa Tomei, I know, I know, why bother listing this credit? whenever you say the words “ex-con tugboat captain” our minds inexorably drift to Marisa Tomei), and follows her back to her boat for a quickie. As he’s ungallantly escaping he falls into the Hudson River and hears his next masterpiece down there. Now all he has to do is explain to Katrina that he’s married.
This is a willfully strange movie that commits to not committing to its comic premise though grammatical restraint (maybe “obstinance” is the better word). The script is replete with comic concepts right out of the Woody Allen handbook, and yet neither Miller’s camerawork, her editing, the score by Bryce Dessner (on which more in a moment), nor the bulk of the performers seem to appreciate that comedy isn’t just theory. She Came To Me seems almost experimental, an exercise in seeing how far you can warp and stretch a joke until it no longer resembles one.
There are innumerable examples, but take the one where Julian and Tereza come to her house one day and discover that Tereza’s mother Magdalena (Joanna Kulig) is Patricia’s new housekeeper. This should be a classic reveal, a joke about class and the absurdity of misplaced expectations. The scene happens, the characters look at each other, and your brain tells you “oh, this is a joke, not a dramatic beat,” but the staging, blocking, cutting, etc. will not betray the intentions behind the scene construction. It’s as if the joke is so good that an audience couldn’t help but laugh, so why help them along? Scene after scene (characters becoming nuns out of nowhere, a visit to a Civil War re-enactment) Miller introduces concepts that ought to be funny and treats them like the kind of off-hand cocktail conversation she so skewered in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. It’s like she finds the idea of stopping for a punchline objectionable…until she doesn’t.
There’s a scene so broad it reminded me of the mostly forgotten P.J. Hogan comedy Mental from 2012, which, like this film, seems influenced by The Sound of Music. Patricia has a patient (Chris Gethard) who in his first session says he can’t stop picturing her naked. The second time we see him he mentions that he’s still afraid and so she begins disrobing as she tells him a story. When she’s done her naked body is hidden from the camera by Gethard’s head, which does at long last tell you the scene is meant to be funny (in a distinctly 1966 second-rate Peter Sellers vehicle way), and then Hathaway starts shrieking the punchline. Hathaway has been funny in the past, and heaven knows she’s been affecting, but the idea that a scene needs her to get naked and screaming in order to provoke a response from the audience would be baffling under ordinary circumstances. The impression here is that this very sleepy movie is waking itself up as well as any audience members whose mind has understandably begun to wander.
She Came To Me seems almost experimental, an exercise in seeing how far you can warp and stretch a joke until it no longer resembles one.
Certainly Miller’s mind has gone astray a handful of times by that point. In fleshing out the story and Dinklage’s character she’s given free rein to composer Bryce Dessner, who you might know best from his day job as one of the guitarists for the band The National (speaking of sleepy), not simply to carpet the movie with twinkling incidental music that has no interest in the comedy happening around it, but also to create the operas that Steven writes in the film. Credit where credit is due, Dessner’s music is astonishingly gorgeous during these passages, and the lead performers sell their parts beautifully. Very few movies incorporate an actual depiction of contemporary American opera (or indeed acknowledge that such a thing has a storied history) and Dessner does not waste the fifteen minutes of unvarnished screen time his work is given.
I would have preferred a movie that was merely an adaptation of these fake operas, rather than the confusingly dry account of their inspiration. This stuff is stratospheric and deserved more than to be one more punchline in need of a neon sign reminding the audience to laugh. Certainly no one else would have dreamt of making She Came to Me and that sort of thing should be celebrated, but we must also ask why no one else would have dreamt of making it.
She Came to Me opens in select theaters October 6th.