“I’ll bet every one of these people has a story for an opera in them.”
With a couple of exceptions, it seems that whenever opera is used in films it’s done to illustrate whatever plight the main characters are going through. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Hanks escapes to the opera days after committing a hit and run only to feel singled out by a performer who is singing about the gates of hell. Meanwhile in The Age of Innocence, Daniel-Day Lewis can’t help but see the forbidden love he has for Michelle Pfeiffer play out in a tragic opera about a doomed romance that’s attended by both of them. The two films are just a couple of examples of how the art form has been used to show the operatic nature of what’s happening at certain points of a movie. She Came to Me flips this technique around and emerges as a whole movie that functions as an opera with characters whose dramatic struggles are at once tragic and larger than life.
In She Came to Me, acclaimed opera composer Steven (Peter Dinklage) is creatively blocked and unable to finish his latest work. His psychiatrist wife Patricia (Anne Hathaway) is supportive, but too busy with her own mental impasse to be any real help. Meanwhile, his stepson Julian (Evan Ellison) and his girlfriend Tereza (Harlow Jane) find themselves in hot water with her parents (Brian d’Arcy James and Joanna Kulig). Things turn around for Steven, however, when he encounters tug boat captain Katrina (Marisa Tomei) a semi-free-spirited woman with some definite baggage who helps him get back on track, creatively, while also adding to the chaos in his life.
When She Came to Me was first announced, Steve Carrel, Nicole Kidman, and Amy Schumer were cast in the three central roles before being replaced by Dinklage, Hathaway, and Tomei, respectively. I wouldn’t have minded a version of this film with those actors in it, but there’s no denying how broadly the material would have been played. Recasting the film with the trio we got helps it emerge as a human comedy where the humor isn’t played for laughs, but instead has a goal of showing the tragic hilarity of life. A man looking for inspiration finds it in an unlikely place and (for better and worse) gets more than he thought was possible, while a woman whose main job is to provide comfort and clarity for others finds herself losing her mind; these are plausible scenarios which writer/director Rebecca Miller treats seriously but can locate the absurdity within them as well. While watching the film, I was reminded of a quote by the late great Carrie Fisher: “If my life weren’t funny, it would just be true and that would be unacceptable.” In many ways, this feels like Miller’s thesis for She Came to Me.
It is the funny that drives the more successful and thoughtful parts of Miller’s film, much of which can be found in the incredibly sharp dialogue given to Hathaway’s character who has a Joan Crawford-like cleaning habit and a newfound pull towards her religious roots. “I used to peek into the nuns’ rooms. Talk about minimalist,” she tells her cleaning lady at one point. When her religious re-discovery leads her to want to enter the convent following a nervous breakdown, she says to a nun: “I know once I’m better, I’ll want to join the sisters.” In a calm voice, the nun replies: “Let’s see how you feel in a year.” It’s a shame that Patricia is all but forgotten about in the movie’s third act, only to be given a punctuation mark in the final scene that gets a laugh but ultimately undermines the character. Still, Miller’s use of humor here rarely falters as she uses it to tackle the subject of inspiration and the various forms it shows itself to the people who need it, while also questioning how much artists are allowed to draw from their own life and where the line is in relation to the people in that life.
She Came to Me would purely be an actor’s showcase if it weren’t for someone as experienced as Miller at the helm guiding her story and making sure it doesn’t get lost in the film’s sea of performances. However the filmmaker also wisely knows when to let her actors shine. Dinklage and Tomei have the tone of their scenes and the essence of their characters nailed, allowing the two seasoned vets to find new territory to explore. Neither one of their characters are cookie cutter and neither is the way either actor brings them to life.
d’Arcy has the film’s toughest role as a man who grows more and more loathsome with each scene. However because D’Arcy is one of the top character actors around, he’s also able to make him incredibly watchable. But the real star of She Came to Me is Hathaway. At times the actress seems to be in another film, but one that seems just as fun because she makes it fun with a performance that’s full of the kind of abandon that continuously bounces off the screen.
Anyone reading this who has seen She Came to Me knows that I’m leaving out mentioning the movie’s secondary plot, which involves a number of prominent characters. This is because even days after having watched the film, I’m still not able to reconcile myself with the fact that both plots exist in the same movie. Looking at the movie’s marketing, there’s very little to suggest this other side of the film even exists, ensuring everyone who sees it will be just as surprised as I was. There are two movies at play here. The first is a comedy of neuroses and artistic struggle that contains a sharp wit and interesting questions. The other is a stark drama about class and racial tensions that also serves as a comment on today’s youth. Both movies feature compelling subjects, diverting plot turns, and fleshed-out characters, all of which call for further exploration. It’s just too bad that didn’t get to happen.