The title of indie maverick Henry Jaglom's 19th feature, The M Word, refers with a delightfully foreboding irony to menopause, as in the female "change of life." Jaglom should be lauded as one of the only directors in movie history brave enough to tread into this thematic arena. The central asset of the picture, however, involves its ability to take its ostensible concept -- so obviously a niche theme -- and subtly expand it in unexpected ways. Therein lies Jaglom's finest gift. And though this isn't a perfect film, it has its director's trademark greatness running through it.
The picture takes place at a fictional cable-television station called KZAM -- "Los Angeles's last independent station" -- which is teetering on the edge of financial collapse. Its two most prominent programs are a children's show hosted by a vivacious young woman named Moxie (Tanna Frederick), and an extreme-sports program hosted by Mack Riley (Gregory Harrison of Trapper John, M.D.), who is Moxie's stepfather. A wheeler-dealer named Charlie Moon (Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos) has been brought in as a part of cost-cutting measures to save the station from collapse, which initially means effectuating layoffs and attempting to discover how $700,000 went missing. Feelings soon begin to blossom between Charlie and Moxie, to the chagrin of her boyfriend Benny Becker (Corey Feldman). Meanwhile, Moxie's mother Carson (Frances Fisher) and her two aunts (Eliza Roberts and Mary Crosby) endure the emotional and physiological complications of their menopausal struggles, and Moxie hits upon the idea of pitching a menopause documentary to KZAM to save it from collapse.
First, the good news. Imperioli and Harrison are brilliant and give both the picture as a whole and their individual sequences healthy doses of dramatic gravitas. Harrison is so commanding and authoritative in such a quiet, understated role that you instinctively want to see more of him, both in this and in other projects. He's fabulous. And Imperioli brings a sub-rosa yen to his romantic pas de deux with Frederick; they share several scenes together (including one impulsive kiss) so sweet and touching that you can instantly believe these two were meant to be together on a cosmic level -- so stirring and magnetic is their romantic chemistry that it actually begins to recall the central couplings of the Golden Age Hollywood melodramas that Jaglom himself famously idolizes. Best of all, Frederick underplays more than she has in other Jaglom projects; especially in early scenes, she is lovely to watch. And when the drama eventually calls for Moxie to grow apoplectic and turn into Norma Rae amid her co-workers, what could easily strain credibility in less adept hands works surprisingly well here because Jaglom and Frederick draw on the male co-stars to ground Moxie and bring the character back to earth. There are also welcome (albeit fleeting) on-camera appearances by Jaglom's stock company, including Julie Davis, Harriet Schock, Simon O. Jaglom, Zack Norman, and Michael Emil (Jaglom's brother) -- the latter of whom gets to deliver some of his trademark hilarious monologues, including a fun nod to his role as Einstein in Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance.
Unfortunately, though, the segments dealing with the programming and promos for KZAM donít function as smoothly as the rest of the drama. As in the opening sequence of Jaglom's last picture, Just 45 Minutes From Broadway, The M Word makes some use of low-grade CGI, especially evident in the pixilated fonts and the repeated cuts to a wall of monitors that appear to have been photoshopped in. And although Moxie's children's program may have been done satirically, it doesn't resemble anything airing in the 21st century. It looks like a bizarre crossbreed of a í70s public-television staple, such as Captain Kangaroo or Polka Dot Door, and (given scribe/editor Ron Vignone's in-drag appearances) one of the Kids in the Hall transvestite sketches. Jaglom's recent Tinseltown dramas (Hollywood Dreams and Queen of the Lot) had the same minor issue: The writer/director set up convincing and dramatically engaging human conflicts, but faltered on the few occasions when he placed the lead character's film-within-a-film onscreen.†And when the movie attempts to wrap up the narrative at the end by bridging the substories involving corporate espionage, Moxie's documentary, and a scene that takes place in Carson's living room, it falters badly and loses coherence.
In the final analysis, though, these are minor liabilities. The movie does something strange, surprising, and wonderful in terms of its inner thematic transition.†The Charlie/Moxie substory may sound on paper like narrative dross, but it isn't fatuous or gratuitous; it quickly begins to rotate around the poignant notion of human transience versus permanence, and touches on our universal desire to hang onto youth, beauty, and love in the stark face of our impending mortality. That dovetails gracefully with the change-of-life idea, and shows how all of us approaching middle age are, to some degree or other, grappling with our own "M words" -- a concept echoed by Harrison's speech at the end.
Above all else, the picture reminds one that the Strasberg-trained Jaglom is an actor's director, prone to drawing superlative performances from thespians -- both individually and in concert. Ergo, as long as The M Word veers away from gimmickry and keeps its chamber seriocomedy on the screen (which is most of the time), it feels complex and warmly satisfying.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: R
- Review: The title of indie maverick Henry Jaglom's 19th feature, The M Word, refers with a delightfully foreboding irony to menopause, as in the female "change of life." Jaglom should be lauded as one of the only directors in movie history brave enough to tread in… (more)