Film Score: Edward Shearmur Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Amy Brenneman and Gregory Hines
Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her is an exercise. By that I mean that the things that happen in the film are simply put there on purpose, with no other reason that the director wanted to place them there. As I said, it’s not so much a story as it is an exercise. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia puts a group of talented women actors through their paces, as though he was teaching a class on film acting, and then tries to somehow string them together hoping that will provide some semblance of narrative. But it doesn’t. It’s the same effect as the epic failure Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson from the year before. The major difference is that this isn’t such an epic fail, just a marginal project barely deserving of comment. The film has a rather laborious history. Garcia is the son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez—one of his books is referenced in the section featuring Cameron Diaz—and the screenplay was “workshopped” at the Sundance Film Festival’s writing lab in 1998. The film was financed in France and while it won awards at Cannes and Sundance it debuted in the U.S. on television, for Showtime, and only afterward did it get a limited release in theaters. Of course reviewers are drawn to this kind of film for film’s sake that doesn’t really do anything but simply exist. They talk about how great the acting is, but there’s really nothing for these women to do but sleepwalk through their roles and call it acting. You actually can’t tell just by looking at them.
The first of the five stories opens with homicide detective Amy Brenneman who is seen briefly on a murder scene. The next concerns Glenn Close, a closed off, frightened physician who lives alone with her aging mother, or perhaps it’s her grandmother. She hires tarot card reader Calista Flockhart to tell her future and gets less than hopeful predictions, with the exception of meeting a new man. From there the story shifts to Holly Hunter as her boyfriend Gregory Hines leaves at two in the morning. She works as a bank manager with Matt Craven. At lunch she goes to visit her doctor, Roma Maffia, as she’s worried she’s pregnant with Hines. She doesn’t want to have the baby because he’s married. She has a similar encounter with mystical insight given to her by bag lady Penelope Allen. Part four is about Kathy Baker, who seems a little too lonely and a little too attached to her teenage son for comfort. Then she meets little man Danny Woodburn who moves in across the street. The final story line is about Calista Flockhart and Valeria Golino, who is dying of cancer. The two are clearly in love, but Golino’s imminent demise is tearing Flockhart apart. They also live next door to Brenneman and her blind sister, Cameron Diaz, who winds up tutoring Craven’s blind daughter and going on a date with him. Meanwhile, Brenneman keeps on investigating the life of the murder victim who was a high school classmate of hers.
Though there may be an earlier precedent, the most obvious influence for these types of films is Short Cuts by Robert Altman. The difference there is that Altman’s film was made by a great director working with the stories of a great writer, Raymond Carver. Garcia’s film does have one significant advantage over something like Magnolia, however, and that’s the fact that he does manage to keep the emotional pitch of the story rather low. And the only misstep in doing that is with the section featuring Holly Hunter where she stumbles down the street after seeing the doctor and begins weeping. It’s the most forced scene in a movie that is forced in every way. That, of course, is the fault of a screenplay that was painfully worked over until there was no life left in it, and an artistic sensibility that is pretentious and prizes self-indulgence. It’s the same type of stuff that gets written at creative writing seminars and fine arts programs all over the country. The photography by Emmanuel Lubezki is beautiful and the set designs are all incredibly sterile in a good way. But to what end? Composer Edward Shearmur tries to make each other stories unique with either a somber jazz trumpet or a new age harp, and his work comes off no more interesting that Garcia’s as a result. This was Garcia’s first film as a director and it shows. Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her is essentially a film school project, and ultimately just as insignificant.