By Sheila Benson,
Times Film Critic
A few minutes after the insinuation blues voice of Willie Dixon pours onto the soundtrack “Ginger Ale Afternoon” (at the Nuart) reveals its heroic subject, who appears to be nine-plus month pregnant, gingerly lowering herself onto a rickety outdoor chaise.
Believe your eyes. Actress Dana Andersen, for whom the role was written and who had already played it here at the Cast Theatre, shot the film three days before she delivered a 10-pound son and did four additional days one month later.
It’s not a sight that leaves audiences indifferent. From the movie’s unveiling at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, through its AFI Fest appearance this spring and down to its current release in director Rafal Zielinski’s tightened-up new edit, audiences have sat in awed silence or in squirming embarrassment as they face this vast, perfect roundness. Inevitably though, anyone who’s had a baby or been close to someone who has, breaks into chortles of recognition. Yep, that’s about-to-be mother-hood, all right, in all its unwieldy glory.
Jesse’s condition gets a split decision in her own trailer-house-hold. She’s glorying in the prospect; it scares her long-out-of-work, older husband Hank (John M. Jackson) into aggressive sulks. Feeling unmanned by his jobless status has even pushed him into a desultory affair with a googly-eyed young thing from their trailer court, a fact Jessie knows full well. So there things stand between the Mickerses, played against a full house of great, low-down Willie Dixon songs about the hurting and needful side of life. As the two snap and bicker at one another, you may need extra patience through the ﬁrst 20 minutes, where it feels like all the fun of being ringside at your own family brawl. Persevere. In the sensitive hands of Zielinski, this Gina Wendkos script becomes a touching and sensual comedy about doubt, dependency, jealousy and faith. It’s played to the hilt by Anderson, Jackson and the hilarious Yeardly Smith, as his buxom, baby-doll mistress, whose voice sounds as though she’d just been sipping from a helium balloon. It’s a movie not richly expanded from its stage version, something that Zielinski has said he would have done without a patently obviously deadline facing them all. Despite that, the production (Times-rated Mature for adult themes) is beautifully mounted, from the work of cinematographer Yuri Neyman (“D.O.A.,” “Liquid Sky”), production designer Michael Helmy, art director VaIly Mestroni and costumer Marlene Stewart, to the integration of Dixon’s pungent songs, sometimes used to comment on the action itself.
The delicious Andersen and Jackson, both veterans of the play, are excellent. No physical prize as he’s presented here, with his T-shirt swathing his head from the sun, nomad-style, Jackson reveals electricity that can come from sheer force of personality alone. It makes their later scenes, as the lusty attraction that has held the couple together reasserts itself, poignant and sexy at the same time. If ever a film deserved that frayed term life-affirming, it would be this rambunctious, sweet-sour comedy.