Helen Hunt has always shown us the same personality: a friendly, slightly anxious, smarter than average (but not too brainy) woman who's a bit afraid of age and loneliness and tries to approach them with humor. So it's no surprise that “Then She Found Me,” her debut as director, has exactly that vibe.
Hunt was one of three writers and one of five producers on the film, which adapts Elinor Lipman's novel, and she stars in a role that has obviously been tailored to her: April Epner, whose life is in turmoil as she approaches her 40th birthday. Both role and movie fit her as comfortable as a favorite bathrobe, and she wins us over long before the final tiny twist of the ending.
The film has reportedly been a decade in the making, sometimes with other stars and definitely with other directors. It has the bad luck to open three weeks after “Baby Mama,” another film about a woman in her late 30s who wants desperately to have a child and finds unexpected romance, but the two are as different as a croissant and a bagel. “Found Me” asks you to invest more in the characters, less in the silly things that happen to them.
You can make that investment if you close your eyes to the kind of time-compressed coincidence that always works better on the printed page. We barely know April before 1) her adoptive mother dies, 2) she's dumped by her new-minted husband, a fellow elementary school teacher (Matthew Broderick) and 3) her birth mother, the popular host of a morning talk show in New York (Bette Midler), drops back into April's life to get to know her.
The movie hustles us through these changes quickly – too quickly, in the case of Broderick's sad-sack character – and then adds the movie's real romantic element: a writer (mostly of dust jacket copy for books) whose wife has just left him with two young children (Colin Firth).
Now the film settles down, as April decides what level of intimacy she wants with all three. (Her husband reappears, whinily begging forgiveness, and April finds him sexually irresistible. That's odd casting for the über-nebbish of “The Producers.”)
The movie asks two serious questions: What level of commitment can we reasonably demand from others, after the first heated flush of love (romantic or maternal) has passed? And can a woman ever be fulfilled without having a child, especially a child she bore? Though the film ultimately sails safely into the snug harbor where it was going all along – also a Hunt trademark – it touches on fresher territory.
Firth comes fully to life onscreen for the first time in years, and Midler delivers the high-energy, hug-the-camera performance we want from her. Broderick (who dated Hunt about 20 years ago) took his flat role as a favor and can do nothing with it.
Hunt shows her usual warmth, backbone and sensitivity. Oddly, other characters often tell April how beautiful she is, though the character always looks thin, wan and bedraggled. It's as if Hunt the writer-director couldn't quite accept that Hunt the leading lady could be drab and lovable at the same time – but we know better.