The consistently disjointed ensemble dramedy “She Came to Me” never settles on a sensible tone to match its anxious, but well-meaning characters, most of whom are neither so ridiculous nor so tragic to be either laugh aloud funny or convincingly dramatic.
Writer/director Rebecca Miller (“Maggie’s Plan”) celebrates her protagonists’ variable qualities with mixed results in this comedy of cringe-y errors, which follows two teenagers who get caught up in their high-strung parents’ romantic crises. The movie’s older cast members, led by Peter Dinklage, Anne Hathaway, and Marisa Tomei, add some value to Miller’s lifeless scenario, which trails after Dinklage’s creatively blocked opera composer, his muse, and his elusive psychiatrist wife, played with typical poise by Hathaway.
Miller struggles to capture some qualities that Dinklage, as panic attack-prone composer Steven, uses to describe the anti-heroic lead of his new opera. Steven takes inspiration from Katrina (Tomei), a sardonic, but emotionally disturbed tugboat captain whom he bumps into at a Manhattan bar. Steven then bases his opera’s lead on Katrina, whom he describes as having a “deadpan” way of expressing herself and a wry appreciation of life’s inherently “absurd” qualities. That description might also be used to describe the tone of Miller’s drama, whose humor’s often too shallow to be funny, but also too knowing to be dismissed.
Steven initially looks pathetic, as in an establishing scene where he meekly asks his wife Patricia (Hathaway) if she would consider having sex at an unusual time (ie: Thursday). Patricia’s not much more relatable, as when she tells her housekeeper Magdalena (Joanna Kulig) that, when Patricia was younger, she thought Catholic nuns’ cells were blessedly uncluttered. Meanwhile, Magdalena’s naïve teenage daughter Tereza (Harlow Jane) struggles to avoid her preening stepfather Trey (Brian d’Arcy James), who becomes obsessed with Tereza’s good-natured boyfriend Julian (Evan Ellison).
Miller always seems to know exactly how she sees her fragile characters, but rarely succeeds in making them likable or compelling. Trey, a court stenographer and over-serious Civil War re-enactor, understandably speaks without a filter or sense of self-awareness, like when he boasts to Julian about his skills at his job. Patricia likewise acts credibly distracted when she turns her husband down for Thursday sex—“It’s an interesting idea…”—but even Hathaway’s strong performance can only do so much to enliven the monotonous and underdeveloped character. Tomei’s introverted and borderline inscrutable performance also seems manic in a representative, but never satisfying, way.
As for Dinklage, he earns viewers’ trust with his uncomfortable body language and halting line readings. But Steven never embodies the sort of pseudo-laudatory ambiguity that Julian, obviously speaking for Miller, champions when he tells his mother that, “two opposite things can be true at the same time.”
Steven’s situational dilemmas are rarely so vivid as to warrant deep consideration, even if Dinklage does make you want to root for Steven as he tiptoes around various twitchy and/or obnoxious supporting characters. Steven appears human enough when he, trying to break out of his creative malaise, walks into a bar and struggles to choose a whiskey. Unfortunately, Katrina swiftly introduces herself with a jarring line about “communal [bar] nuts,” which she’s heard can give you hepatitis. That could have been the setup for a funny joke; sadly, it’s a representatively weird introduction to a major character.
Tereza and Julian’s unbelievable puppy love romance also exemplifies what doesn’t work in “She Came to Me,” especially when Tereza has to express her feelings. She’s repeatedly warned to be less trusting, like when Trey says that she needs to “develop a suspicion of other people.” Unfortunately, the fact that it’s Trey speaks to the movie’s underwhelming laissez faire view of teenage romance. And even if you disagree with Trey, a few key scenes with Tereza and Julian might fail to live up to the delicate emotions that they hint at, like when Tereza and Julian discuss the possibility of marriage. It’s a sweet moment, but their dialogue doesn’t resonate beyond Tereza and Julian’s stated intentions.
That said, the movie’s younger cast members don’t stand out as much as Hathaway, whose committed performance will probably be best remembered for an unfortunately memorable strip tease. In this tonally berserk scene, Patricia tells a long, involved story about kreplach dumplings while slowly and methodically removing her clothes. This unprompted and unexpected burlesque routine is effectively startling; it also illustrates how thinly-drawn Patricia tends to be.
Miller’s apparent fascination with Hathaway as a performer rarely enhances our understanding of Patricia, not even during an overwrought scene where Patricia sneaks into a nun’s cell and daydreams about a silhouette cast from a nearby window. It’s a quiet and unusually delicate moment for Patricia, but not even Miller, a strong actor’s director, can bring out the subtleties of a scene that’s as threadbare as the cell’s décor.
Good intentions only go so far, and “She Came to Me” often looks as frazzled and unfortunate as its nervous characters.