Hysterical Blindness

on January 16, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
   Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis leave their dignity at the door in their tender portrayals of Debby and Beth, two Jersey girls still looking for love as they enter their 30s. The film is set in a year known for its excess, 1987, so the actresses' move is a bold one, as their glamorous Tinseltown style is replaced by big hair and gaudy makeup: Thurman has a Farrah Fawcett 'do that she pins back in a banana clip, and Lewis' character doesn't go anywhere without her industrial-sized hairspray. The effect is not attractive.

   Yet Thurman and Lewis bring empathy and understanding to these girls, who spend every night at the local dive, Ollie's, trolling for prospective love interests. Beth has her eye on the bartender, Bobby, habitually leaving her adolescent daughter Amber at home alone while she flirts. Debby, meanwhile, thinks she may have found the one when she spots Rick, fresh meat with "Patrick Swayze eyes." She is so blinded by her desire for a meaningful relationship, however, that even when they sleep on the floor, not in his bed, on their first date, he doesn't show up for an elaborate dinner she has prepared and he practically ignores her on a subsequent evening at Ollie's, she holds out hope and starts browsing catalogues for an engagement ring.

   Debby's behavior stems from a fear of abandonment, having watched her mother Virginia (Gena Rowlands), the head waitress at the Skyway's Diner by the freeway, crumble when her father left them. Virginia anticipates another shot at love, however, when she meets Nick (Ben Gazzara), an affectionate gentleman who encourages her to move with him to Florida.

   Debby and Beth's behavior would be unnervingly pathetic if their desperation weren't so recognizable. It's a testament to the film's universality that Bollywood helmer Mira Nair, in a stark departure from her award-winning Punjabi nuptial celebration "Monsoon Wedding," taps into the rituals of women in mourning: drafting grocery lists and reapplying their makeup.

   And it's fun. Thurman and Lewis are hilarious throughout. They exclaim, "Oh my god!" with wicked glee as they strategize in the ladies room at Ollie's, agreeing on exactly what drinks they will order and in what sequence as they fluff and stuff, primp and preen. They shout along to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" (just one of a number of '80s hits that will transport you back to the decade, for good or bad) while Amber does her baton routine on the pitiful front lawn.

   Debby and Beth's friendship takes some blows as they sacrifice the relationships with the ones who love them for possibilities with ones who might, but ultimately they realize that they only have each other to rely on--and that's all they need.    Starring Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis, Gena Rowlands, Justin Chambers, Ben Gazzara and Jolie Peters. Directed by Mira Nair. Written by Laura Cahill. Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher. No distributor set. Comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 98 min.

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