When a Man Loves a Woman (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The previews for When a Man Loves a Woman do this film an injustice. Heavy on poorly-edited melodramatic sequences, they give little inkling of the level of emotional honesty attained. Luis Mandoki's film succeeds not because it tackles alcoholism, but because it faces up to the trauma that eats away at the lives of the non-alcoholics in the family.

One failing of the script is that it assumes an unlikely level of ignorance from its audience. Alcoholism is such a pervasive social problem that it's hard to accept that anyone likely to see When a Man Loves a Woman wouldn't have a better understanding of the disease than the movie gives them credit for. After all, everything from high school health classes to Oprah have, at one point or another, addressed the issue. Unlike AIDS, alcoholism is not a new disease that the public needs to be educated about.

When a Man Loves a Woman centers on a seemingly-happily married couple. Michael Green (Andy Garcia) and his wife Alice (Meg Ryan) have, at first glance, the perfect relationship. But take a peek beneath the veneer, and there are problems. Alice is a habitual drinker, and her periods of sobriety are getting fewer and fewer. Meanwhile, Michael's duties as an airline pilot take him away from home for weeks at a time, keeping him ignorant of the extent of his wife's problem.

Completing the family unit are Jess (Tina Marjorino), Alice's daughter by another man whom Michael has adopted as his own, and Casey (Mae Whitman), the four-year old child of the Greens. The presence of these children, and their importance to the development of the story, is what elevates When a Man Loves a Woman. As potent as some of the scenes between Michael and Alice are, those featuring Jess or Casey invariably have greater impact. It helps that both young actresses are believable.

Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia were probably given the lead roles more because of box office appeal than an ability to bring superior depth to their characters. Surprisingly, while neither turns in an exceptional performance, they are both solid, and each has a few scenes in which they shine.

The ending is too facile, and When a Man Loves a Woman may take longer than necessary to arrive at its resolution. There are moments throughout when the script is apt to strike a raw nerve with some, as is often the case when a "real" issue is probed with any degree of sincerity. Whatever else it may do, this film does not play it safe, and the risks it takes keep the audience engaged by the drama.

When a Man Loves a Woman is about pain. This is not an original topic for a movie - especially one about alcoholism - but the script does a good enough job establishing the dynamics of the Green family that we never doubt that the story deserves to be told. The film's poignancy is its strength, even as occasional didactic tendencies are its weakness. In balance, the former by far outweighs the latter, making this a worthwhile picture.

When a Man Loves a Woman (United States, 1994)

Director: Luis Mandoki
Cast: Meg Ryan, Andy Garcia, Tina Marjorino, Mae Whitman, Ellen Burstyn
Screenplay: Ronald Bass and Al Franken
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1994-05-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: