I’ve long been mystified as to why Paul Brickman didn’t make more movies. He debuted as a writer/director in 1983 with the ridiculously successful Tom Cruise vehicle Risky Business (after toiling away as a screenwriter, most notably on Jonathan Demme‘s underseen CB-radio comedy Handle With Care). Brickman then waited seven years before coming out with the devastating Men Don't Leave and, since, he’s contributed a few screenplays to Hollywood here and there, but no more features. Maybe Brickman was jolted by the scant attention paid to his second film, a hearthaching piece dumped into theaters in early 1990 and then ignored, even though it has a really great cast and is gorgeously filmed. I'm left to speculate as to whether the subject matter, and maybe the film's strange title, may have been too much for people to take--that’s the only guess I can hazard. Also, given that it was released during the Oscar season that year, maybe critics and audiences both saw it as a dog, as are many movies dropped during that time of the year. Whatever the reason, it's a real loss to moviegoers who long for something sweet, strong and affecting to take in. But now we have a chance to correct that...
Jessica Lange stars as Beth Macauley, a suburban housewife with two teenage kids (a cocky Chris O’Donnell and doe-eyed Charlie Korsmo, who also serves as the film's sparingly-used narrator). Their lives are scrambled when the family’s patriarch is killed in a construction accident, forcing them to sell their home and move to a small Baltimore apartment. A sheltered person for much of her adult life, Beth lands a job as the assistant to the callous owner of a independent bakery (a younger, thinner Kathy Bates), and then watches as her children begin to take refuge in other homes (O’Donnell starts up an affair with an older woman, a nurse played with a soft, sexy flair by Joan Cusack; and Korsmo, missing his old life, begins spending more and more time over at a friend’s house, where the family unit is still intact). Even though she takes steps to sculpt a new future (including beginning a tentative romance with an avant-garde musician, played with understated charm by Arliss Howard), Beth finds herself sliding deeper and deeper into depression.
Men Don't Leave begins believably, but after its first ten minutes, it really kicks in and is then filled with one prime scene after another: Beth, running into a friend, embarrassed to be a checker at her first tentative grocery store job; she and her sons arguing over the sale of the house and the father's truck; O'Donnell and Cusack, in their first meeting, in an elevator stopping at every floor in their Baltimore apartment building (Cusack is really terrific in this film; she makes a difficult role work beautifully); Lange awkwardly meeting Arliss Howard for the first time as the orchestra he's working with conducts a bizarre rehearsal; O'Donnell presumptuously berating Lange after coming home late; Cusack propositioning O'Donnell on their first dinner date, and his sickened reaction (perhaps this prevented the film from being successful: the notion of a high school boy conducting an affair with an adult, though I think it's a silly reaction to denigrate such a well-drawn story); an energetic dance scene at a polka party. And that's just in the first hour. The film constantly surprises and invigorates you, and then it breaks you down (on this note, it's impossible not to love Arliss Howard's singing of "Bella Notte," from Lady and the Tramp, with music impresario Rick Rubin as accompanist and Lange, on the other side of the closed door they perform to, afraid to open up).
The film, written by Brickman and Barbara Benedek (The Big Chill), doesn’t spare any blows to Beth’s character, and the film really gets the feeling of being horribly down, to the point where you don’t think you can ever get up again (depression's jailing sensation has never been more knowingly portrayed). Lange gives the single best performance in her long career, and O’Donnell also delivers his top performance (he has one scene with Arliss Howard that will make you crumble into sobs). With emotive photography by the legendary Bruce Surtees, a diverse and poignant score by Thomas Newman (when the piano kicks in, pull out the tissues), and smart editing by Richard Chew, this movie has all the right makings. Even though I have to admit some of the plotting, involving Korsmo's sketchy best friend and the purchase of a lottery ticket, is a tiny bit iffy, this hardly registers finally. Men Don't Leave, a sentimental but always kind of tough drama, certainly deserved to be a bigger hit, financially and critically. Luckily, it’s at last been released on DVD by Warner Archives, so we can all properly settle this score and see Brickman's film as the wringing, extremely rewarding work it is.