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April 30, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | April 30, 2008 |

Helen Hunt hasn’t exactly burned up the 21st century. After a solid stretch in the late ’90s as an Everywoman on “Mad About You” and movies like As Good As It Gets, Hunt has spent the last several years not just flying below the radar but grounded. Now, at 44, the older, wiser Hunt makes her feature-film directing debut with Then She Found Me, which also offers her a starring role for which she’s particularly well suited.

On the verge of turning 40, April Epner (Hunt) spends her days teaching very young children and pining for a family of her own. Ben (Matthew Broderick), the immature man she recently married, isn’t up to the task of procreating — for emotional reasons. Waiting for her in the kitchen one night, he tearfully declares himself unprepared for their life together, takes part in perfunctory separation-sex on the kitchen floor, and moves in with his mother.

Maternal issues figure even more prominently in April’s life. She was adopted as an infant, and the mother who raised her passes away soon after Ben leaves. Almost immediately after that, her biological mother, Bernice (Better Midler), finds her and makes a forceful, awkward attempt to take on a parental role. April has to decide if Bernice, a flaky talk-show host, is on the level — she tells April her real father was Steve McQueen, which turns out to be a lie — or worth the effort in the face of so much other tumult.

When a recently divorced father of one of her students (Frank, played by Colin Firth) begins to fall for April, as she discovers that she and Ben may have been more productive than they should have been on the kitchen floor, you have all the ingredients for a zany comedy of mistaken identities, paternity secrets, and mother-daughter angst. But the movie takes the higher, quieter road, going for some laughs but mostly treating its characters’ crises with gentle concern. The movie takes its tone from Hunt’s face, which is both fresh and lined, drawn but stubbornly girlish.

There’s something simultaneously worn but hopeful about the rest of the project, too — it’s based on a novel by Elinor Lipman that was published 18 years ago; Firth continues to move further from dashing hunk and closer to the Platonic form of chubby Dad; and Midler is fully entrenched in the Vegas phase of her career. And then there’s Broderick. It’s hard to believe he ever played the uber-cool Ferris Bueller. Most of his roles these days could be billed as Schmuck #1, and Ben is no different.

But Broderick does schmuck well, and Firth is an appealing flawed father, and of course, Midler is a casting bull’s-eye for kooky, aging vanity. Their combined efforts make Then She Found Me a project that’s easy to love. Despite one jarring scene in which Frank’s anger seems disproportionate and off-putting, redefining his character, the movie swims comfortably in the adult end of the pool, confronting grown-up issues of dissatisfaction, desire, and faith before summer’s parade of mindless action flicks sends us back to the shallows, where we can splash around and pretend to be kids.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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Then She Found Me / John Williams

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