Dir: Mira Nair. US. 2002. 98mins
Despite securing the prized "centrepiece" premiere slot at this year's Sundance, Mira Nair's immediate follow-up to her Venice-winning Monsoon Wedding succumbs to some of the perils involved in adapting stage plays to the big screen - should this made-for-cable film, about the struggles of three working-class women to find love and emotional stability, even see much of a theatrical life beyond its natural home on the small screen. In the US, it will debut on HBO this August.
Thurman is one of the executive producers of Hysterical Blindness, having optioned and developed the project. And it is easy to see why she might have been attracted to the material, seeing in the play a vehicle for exploring some strong female roles. It's also an opportunity to return to a decade when the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Chaka Khan ruled the airwaves and a jumbo-sized hairspray can was a vital fashion accessory. The title takes its name from a documented medical condition - the loss of vision as a result of mental stress - that afflicts Thurman's character Debby at the onset of the film. But it clearly also refers to her own inability to see straight when it comes to relationships, romantic and otherwise.
Debby is not the only one having anxieties. Her mother (Rowlands), who still shares a house with her single daughter, is wondering whether the attentions of a gentle retired man (Gazzara) at the diner where she works will lead to something truly long-lasting. And her best friend Beth (Lewis) is also on the prowl for a dream guy, possibly from the bar-tender at local joint she frequents with Debby, although this means having to constantly leave her 10-year-old daughter behind at home. When out of the blue a young stud with "Patrick Swayze eyes" enters their bar and catches Debby's eye, you just know that he's trouble and that the bonds between this central female triangle are about to be put to the test. Blind to his obvious shortcomings, Debby sees in their one-night stand prospects for a long-term prospect: "This is different. I just didn't go out and fuck some guy" she screams at her Beth. "I slept with the man." But by then audiences have already seen through her self-delusion.
Certainly, the energetic performances from Thurman and Lewis are among their very best, and cinematographer Declan Quinn again shows his talent for creating visual beauty out of unexpected places - in this case, the ugly mall and row-house sprawl that has built up around the industrial wetlands of New Jersey. But the dialogue remains theatrically stilted in places and the situations too staged to ring entirely true in a medium that demands naturalism. What is more, audiences will have a tough time believing that Uma Thurman, even hiding her porcelain beauty behind a bad 1980s hairdo and tacky clothing, would still find it so hard to even attract men at a roadside bar. And the opportunity to see Rowlands and Gazzara together again on screen for the first time since John Cassavetes' First Night provides reason enough to set time aside to catch the television premiere. At least in the US. Overseas, its prospects will depend entirely on the strength of Thurman's appeal. As exotic as all the Jersey locations and period details might seem to the outside world, Monsoon Wedding this is not.
Prod co: Karuna Dream, Blum Israel Productions
Int'l sales: HBO Enterprises
Prod: Lydia Dean Pilcher
Exec prods: Uma Thurman, Jason Blum, Amy Israel
Scr: Laura Cahill based on her play
Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Ed: Kristina Boden
Prod des: Stephanie Carroll
Music: Lesley Barber
Main cast: Uma Thurman, Gena Rowlands, Juliette Lewis, Ben Gazzara, Justin Chambers, Anthony De Sando, Jolie Peters