[Screen It]

(2008) (Helen Hunt, Colin Firth) (R)

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Dramedy: A teacher must not only contend with her husband suddenly dumping her, but also the biological mother she never knew suddenly reentering her life.
April Epner (HELEN HUNT) is a married, 39-year-old teacher in New York whose biological clock is ticking. So far unable to get pregnant by her fellow schoolteacher husband Ben (MATTHEW BRODERICK), April refuses her mother's call to adopt a child, mainly because she was adopted and would prefer to have the direct bonding that her doctor brother, Freddy (BEN SHENKMAN), had with their mom.

April's natural pregnancy quest is thrown for a loop, however, when Ben unexpectedly announces that married life isn't for him and thus moves out to go home and live with his mother. Things become even more complicated when April's biological mother, daytime TV talk show host Bernice Graves (BETTE MIDLER), suddenly wants to be back in her life, a development that doesn't sit well with April, particularly following the recent death of her adoptive mom.

Things begin to look up a bit when April starts dating Frank (COLIN FIRTH), the divorced father of some students at her school, although both jilted adults are a bit hazy about how to proceed. That's then thrown for a loop when April discovers she's pregnant from a one-time fling of previous break-up sex with Ben. From that point on, she must balance that, the men in her life, and her newly reestablished but rocky relationship with Bernice.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Considering that spring is the time of year when most animals get busy making little, replacement versions of themselves, I suppose it's appropriate that this point in the movie season should also be involved with such matters. Yet, while documentaries are the right choice for covering animal reproduction (especially since animals don't have any qualms about reproducing), the same treatment might seem a bit odd and/or creepy when applied to humans.

Then there's the fact that some people want but can't bear children or decide not to have any at all. While the latter usually only involves secondary characters or simply isn't the main plot thrust of many films, the former has been given the spotlight not once but twice this spring.

The first, of course, was "Baby Mama," an often outrageous comedy about a successful businesswoman whose biological tick-tocking compels her to go the surrogate mother route, with unintended consequences. In "Then She Found Me," the mommy clock is also ticking for April Epner (Helen Hunt), a 39-year-old teacher, and like her counterpart in "BM," the unexpected occurs while she's trying to get pregnant.

Except that what ensues is played as bittersweet dramedy rather than outright comedy (sorry, no sign of Amy Poehler squatting in the bathroom sink to be found here). All of which means it plays out like a Lifetime TV movie, what with the protag's husband (Matthew Broderick) suddenly dumping her; her biological mother (Bette Midler) suddenly showing up in her life and wanting to reconnect; and discovering that she's pregnant by her separated husband from a previous round of break-up sex just as she's suddenly started dating a parent (Colin Firth) of some of the kids at her school. Heck, if she had a dog, it probably would have bitten her and run out just after her car broke down.

Yes, it sounds like it has all the makings of a stereotypical "woe is me" country song, but the film, written and directed by Hunt (in her debut in both roles adapting Elinor Lipman's novel, with the help of fellow scribes Alice Arlen and Victor Levin), is set in New York City with a yuppie aura despite Hunt and Broderick's characters apparently being not-that-well-paid schoolteachers.

Granted, it does have its moments, and its heart and soul are certainly in the right place, but the film has an awkward demeanor that will likely prevent it from connecting with all but the most devoted Lifetime TV channel fans. And much of that stems from Hunt's work both in front of and behind the camera. I appreciate that the novice filmmaker hasn't gone the over-the-top, melodramatic tearjerker route, but the low-key tone doesn't particularly sit well either.

Such an approach usually allows the performers to do their thing, but I also found most of them off just enough (or a lot in some instances) that they didn't engage me as they should have. I'll admit that I loved Hunt back in the early TV days of "Mad About You," mainly because my wife and I could see ourselves in the characters' shoes, and the chemistry between her and Paul Reiser was spot on (as was most of the writing).

Here, Hunt's script is lacking the sort of sparkling dialogue to support the characters, and her performance feels like a retread of much of her prior work. While one can applaud her decision to allow herself to look world-weary and even haggard, the squinty-eyed and nearly pained expressions, along with the familiar vocal delivery don't help much in differentiating this character from ones she played in the past.

Meanwhile, Broderick's nebbish character nearly disappears into the background (and may be his weakest work yet), and Midler does her usual shtick but thankfully reins in the theatrics. Firth gets to play a wide range of emotions in his conflicted divorced father role, but they sometimes teeter on caricature, something perhaps a more seasoned director could have tempered a bit to make all of that feel more genuine rather than fabricated.

The fact that the pile-up of such characters and storylines occurs in less than 30 days doesn't help such matters as most of the developments feel forced to varying degrees. Yes, I understand rebound affairs and that the temporal period was necessary to squeeze the unexpected pregnancy complication into the proceedings. Yet, all of that felt just off enough for me that I never really cared about the characters or their various emotional issues and needs.

Since it's unlikely this film will break out into anything that will end up on the general public's radar (with the only notable thing being the casting of author Salman Rushdie as an obstetrician in an extended cameo), Hunt should chalk it up as a first time out learning experience, figure out what worked and didn't, and apply that to her next effort. As long as that isn't the big screen version of "Mad About You," I'm sure she'll do fine. "Then She Found Me" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed May 2, 2008 / Posted May 16, 2008

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