Jeff Daniels is one of my favorite actors. Reason good enough to watch the movie that otherwise didn't seem to promise much.
Daniels plays Paul, going through a divorce after his family left him a year ago. Trying to stay in the saddle and keep the pieces of his life together he enjoys single life as much as he can, but it's not easy after divorce papers come and this life chapter approaches its end. However, we will find out that he led similar life during marriage years, and that was the main reason his wife Nancy, though still loving him, took the children and returned to her home town.
Daniels is always Daniels. He is not Johnny Depp, who gives a new, different performance each time he stands in front of camera, acting new way, looking new way, being someone new. No, Daniels can't do it. He isn't a de Niro hero, and not a Hoffmann loser who can both now and then successfully turn to be opposite. He is average, ordinary man we see every day on the street, in post office, train or on stairs we go down from our own flat. So it all depends on the writer who must imagine a new story for this character, and it has to be an everyday story that Daniels can fit in. But if the story is good, he can return the favor of getting the role by playing it brilliant. Yes, he had his character on the top in "Purple Rose of Cairo", and the one on the bottom in "Dumb and Dumber", but he always returned to that simple face we even see in our bathroom mirror (if we have just a little luck in our lives). Maybe more than ever he is like us, he makes mistakes one after another, sometimes careless, sometimes ruthless... just like we do.
And here we have a perfect ordinary story about everyday people, as if they came from any early afternoon TV movie with a little Oprah dressing. So you can watch with one eye closed, expecting endless clichés and probably a instant-sugared happy ending with screaming moral message. And you'll be wrong!
First you see Daniels making love to a woman, things look nice until we find he doesn't know her name and her husband is just returning home before he was expected. We see man talking to his neighbors while Daniels runs away in hurry. So, we met five people in first two minutes. And four of them we'll never see again.
In the same style we'll be introduced to few dozen characters and we have to concentrate who they are, because we can never be sure if they'll appear behind the corner, few days later or never again. This is a structure of real life, we meet many people, but their importance varies from being our daily environment, even our best friends, to someone we don't remember as soon as we turn our head the other side. Yet, though Paul is main character, it is not a movie that follows its star minute after minute; we jump from New York to Pennsylvania and see his family and their problems. Most of the characters will finally meet together, have some deeper or, more often, superficial influences one on another, and the story gets its shape in second half. People who kept using only half of one eye either gave up of or fell asleep. Those who weren't afraid to follow this Altman-like collection of people and destinies are now awarded.
And while American TV movies and Oprah stereotypes dangerously spread their wings above this little Pennsylvania town, don't overlook how the plot develops. Paul and his wife can't live together, but don't hate each other (as it's usual); yet they are almost unable to communicate. Children are with their mother, they seem to hate father (mother had a whole year to make them do it), especially the daughter. But we will learn that she misses New York, and blames father more because she had to leave than for bad family relations he had caused. At the end she leaves her mother and returns to live with Paul. (Finally we find a father-daughter relation free of abuse and hints of incest.) Seeing compromises other people have to make even Paul an his ex-wife reconsider their future, and though they stay apart their relation stays open as well as the movie ending. No Hollywoodish forced happy-end, and no feminist pamphlet. Thank God and Yorkin! Except director's excellent work, we can also enjoy some great supporting roles (Mahoney, Wright, Griffin...), while some stay pale. Bacharach made an unexpected retiring score, with not a single song Dionne Warwick could sing in or after the movie. But after all, it all depends on two things: if you like ordinary stories made just a bit differently, and more than that, if you like Jeff Daniels.