“My wife is an alcoholic. Best person I ever met.” -Michael
Starring Meg Ryan in the mid-nineties alongside Andy Garcia in a role originally intended for Tom Hanks, it’s hard to look at the DVD case and not think Sleepless in Seattle plus a tipsy wife. Sure, the description and quotes assure you the movie is sad, but come on, Meg Ryan? Mid-nineties? She’ll be quirky, he’ll make a speech, they’ll live happily ever after, and the audience cries because of all the sap spewed into their eyes. But unlike most films about addiction, When a Man Loves a Woman is surprisingly not a joyous and lighthearted affair.
Instead, the film focuses tightly in on a family slowly broken by Alice’s (Meg Ryan) spiral downwards into alcoholism. She sneaks out to the curb at the witching hour to swig from the newspaper-swaddled bottle of vodka hidden under the crumpled soda cans. The cold makes the poison smoother anyway, and she has until Tuesday to lick the bottle dry. Of course when the door locks behind her, her husband is mystified, but she’s got it under control, she’s fucking invincible with a few ounces of liquid courage. He never figures it out, never wants to figure it out.
But the kids know; the kids always know. The two child actors do a fantastic job, pulling off not only believable children (of ages four and nine) but infusing their roles with the alternating extremes of gnawing sadness and exuberant childhood.
What the film really gets right is the way it grounds itself in the little details of everyday life. The kids not liking their grandma, who’s always making snide comments about their mother. The tight relationship between the older daughter and her step father, odd allies in coping with Alice. The babysitter trying to help, staying later unasked so that the kids aren’t alone with Alice. Good stories build entire worlds with a few brushstrokes and words, giving bits and pieces of detail that we can interpolate into an entire picture.
The central relationship is what anchors the film though, the disintegration of Alice’s and Michael’s marriage. It’s subtly falling apart from the first scenes, the way she’s just a little too obnoxious and out of control, the way he gives in to it, explains it away as Alice being Alice. Co-dependence isn’t just about the weak spouse leaning on the strong one, it’s about the strong one needing the weak one to be weak.
Nobody lies quite like a junkie, slicked sweet with charisma like life’s hanging by a thread. Once he knows she’s an addict, the lies crack open like a rotten melon, the sweetness gone rancid in a beat. But why would he suspect? She’s his goddamned wife, and what kind of man would he be if he had assumed every word out of her mouth was a lie before he knew. What kind of monster wouldn’t take his wife at her word, accept her goofiness, her odd explanations? Addicts are intuitive masters of the big lie, stacking the untruths so elaborately that their very implausibility makes them plausible. It’s another form of the drug, telling bigger and bigger lies, feeling the adrenaline pound and then a gasping catharsis when they buy the act again. Addiction is like a chimpanzee swinging back and forth between two trees, lunging higher and higher on thinner and thinner branches. The lies take you up one tree, the vodka up the other, and at some point one of the branches snaps, either the lies get too thin or the drink can’t hold you up anymore. And you hit every branch on the way down.
And as Alice breaks down, the film does the service of staying subtle, not going for the big easy shocks. Relationships don’t tend to break down all at once when she bangs the cute guy at work or he finally throws a punch at her. They bleed out slowly from a thousand cuts, the endless niggling insults that eat away at us from the inside, the tiny digs we take at each other.
Is it a movie worth seeing? It’s not a brutal look at drugs like Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting, but its mundanity of subject is its strength. It’s grindingly sad at points, and although it ends with hope, it doesn’t wrap everything up in a bow. Like real relationships, the film is complicated, uncertain, and in the end, worth it.
“It’s horrifying how much you can hate yourself for being low and weak and he couldn’t save me from that. So I turned it on him; I tried to empty it onto him. But there was always more, you know. When he tried to help I told him that he made me feel small and worthless. But nobody makes us feel that, we do that for ourselves. I shut him out because I knew if he ever really saw who I was inside, that he wouldn’t love me.” -Alice