Co-written by Al Franken, this romantic drama pits Meg Ryan and Andy García against alcoholism—and a bad script.
Maybe I should’ve lowered my expectations for a movie written by a comedian-turned-disgraced former senator. Riding the coattails of When Harry Met Sally (even sharing the title’s first word!), When a Man Loves a Woman marks an attempt to marry the Meg Ryan rom-com with the hair-raising 1977 masterwork A Woman Under the Influence. Really. Alice (Ryan) is a principal at her kids’ school, her husband Michael (Andy García) an airline pilot. The pair has what looks like a functional relationship. Oh, but Alice likes to drink, and the movie loves to cut to her drunk.
The screenplay from Ronald Bass and, yep, Al Franken, seems immune to showing anything organically, as addicted to “telling” as Alice is to booze. Does her husband notice her addiction? How could he not? Does he care? Who knows! Soon, Alice does something very dramatic while drunk and decides to put down the bottle.
Easier said than done, she quickly relapses, cartoonishly lashing out at her husband and daughter. Alice just sort-of saunters into the scene, slaps her child, and then falls out of the shower, smashing the door. Similar to how Joker would later waltz around as a cheap, watered-down facsimile of Taxi Driver, When a Man Loves a Woman misunderstands and rips-off A Woman Under the Influence as Alice is soon sent away to a rehab facility where she’s mostly cut-off from her family.
Michael struggles, trying to keep his household happy and stay in the air at work. He alienates their nanny and throws a fit when he realizes it’s his responsibility to buy paper towels. Meanwhile, Alice begins recovery. When Michael and the kids come visit, he’s ridiculously hostile to the folks she’s healing alongside.
It’s here we meet Gary (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 20-something also in recovery Alice has become fast friends with. For what it’s worth, Hoffman does a good job with his two scenes. Hoffman was somewhat open about his struggles with addiction in college, right before his career started taking off, experiences I believe he channels into the role.
If only there’d been the chance for Gary to go into what landed him in rehab. Instead, the film’s only concerned with the actor as a threat to the insecure Michael. At least this functions: Hoffman gives Gary ample confidence and swagger; frankly, it’s the hottest I’ve seen Hoffman on-screen. But Gary’s just a shadow of a character as underserved as, well, everyone in When a Man Loves a Woman.
Does her husband notice her addiction? How could he not? Does he care? Who knows!
It’s only in the third act after Alice returns home, that this thing threatens to become a better, more interesting movie. As she recovers, Michael feels impotent and useless, slowly—actually, pretty quickly—growing to resent her. He can’t accept that Alice is an alcoholic, becoming an even uglier version of the person who allowed his wife to suffer for years. (Then again, it’s never clear how long Alice has been drinking heavily.) Too bad things have to resolve in the most formulaic, cookie-cutter conclusion.
The script serves neither García nor Ryan particularly well. We’re supposed to root for Michael even though he’s a patronizing, petulant monster. An actor can humanize an asshole: look no further back than last year when Adam Driver and Noah Baumbach attempted something similar to much greater success. But García goes in the opposite direction—Michael becomes increasingly difficult to empathize with, and it’s even harder to root for him and Alice to stay together. Ryan suffers from something similar, as it just doesn’t feel like this movie is trying to interrogate addiction and its impact on others. We’re just here to see her pretend she’s drunk sometimes.
So, what exactly does a man do when he loves a woman? Who knows? In the end, the film falls apart because of its inability to actually examine less than lovely behavior, be it alcoholism or being a bad partner. If you’re just going to make a rom-com, what do you get from dressing it up in deeper, darker stuff? Not much.