I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine… I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.
—Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
What is Salman Rushdie doing in this movie? Most plainly, he’s making his big screen debut, after reportedly auditioning for the role of an obstetrician. In so doing, he’s also he’s also contributing to the continuing decline of the romantic comedy, based-in-a-best-selling-novel division. As cute and inoffensive and eventually uplifting as Then She Found Me may be, it is also a formulaic exercise, demonstrating yet again the limits of girls’ options in the movies.
Then She Found Me
Helen Hunt, Colin Firth, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Lynn Cohen, Ben Shenkman, Salman Rushdie
US theatrical: 2 May 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 4 Jul 2008 (Limited release)
In this, the movie is surely instructive. Based on Elinor Lipman’s 1990 novel, it tracks the saga of 39-year—old schoolteacher April (Helen Hunt, who also directs). As the film opens, she is apparently happily marrying fellow teacher Ben (Matthew Broderick), their shared resistance to ritual indicated when they escape the wedding and run off to ride bumper cars, a sequence that includes the requisite montagey laughter. It’s not long before Ben drops the seeming other shoe, however, informing April that he’s made a mistake (“I don’t want this life”), that he wants more than anything to be able to jump ahead to a year from now when they will be best friends, still teaching at the same school but without the responsibilities and intimacies of marriage. April looks appropriately horrified and even sad at this news, then reveals to Ben that she has a surprise, a new bit of sexy underwear under her coat. They engage in passionate rolling about on the kitchen floor, after which Ben pulls up his baggy slacks, grabs his backpack, and heads to his mother’s house.
Though he has appeared on screen for only three or four minutes, the point about Ben is made: he’s childish. The film doesn’t indicate exactly why this particular character trait appeals to April. She does work daily with little children at work, though they tend to function as props, save for a brother and sister, who belong to a handsome, clever, and recently abandoned father, Frank (Colin Firth, playing yet another version of Mr. Darcy). Alternately doting and deeply jealous, Frank makes a pass at April just nine hours after Ben has left hr. Though he is unaware of this chance of timing, Frank is just childish enough to touch April’s soul, and so they embark on a sometimes charming, somewhat tempestuous romance.
There’s more. Even as April grapples with her ongoing turmoil over man-boys, some of which she shares with her plot-devicey doctor-brother Freddy (Ben Shenkman), she’s also coming to some sort of terms over her own status as an adopted child. When, early in the film she expresses her increasingly urgent desire to have her own child (“I want to have a baby that’s really mine”), April is chastised by her adoptive mother (Lynn Cohen), who extols the joys of both her adopted daughter and genetic son. “I watched you watch him,” moans April, suggesting the sort of distance she felt from her family as a child.
Little does she know that she will be meeting her birth mother, the vivacious Bernice (Bette Midler). Currently a TV talk show host—the sort who listens to teary-eyed guests tell stories of giving up their children, then confesses to her own such story, in slow-zoomy close-up, her breathing modulated for maximum manipulation of audience emotions—Bernice is something of an ego whirlwind. After sending her assistant (John Benjamin Hickey) to check out April, she makes her move, performatively eager to reconnect after giving up her infant girl some 38 years before. “I feel like you are the reward for everything I did right in my life,” Bernice gushes on their first meeting. Declaring that April’s father is Steve McQueen (with whom she had a brief but passionate affair when she was a 15-year-old working at the Bonwit Teller perfume counter: “The memory lasted a lifetime!”), Bernice proposes that she and April make up for lost time, sharing what she imagines to be mother-daughter experiences, like lunches and gossip and shopping. To this end, she begins confessing assorted life details: her hair color is her own, she’s hard of hearing in her right ear, and oh yes, three years ago she had a lumpectomy.
April, in turn, is predictably shocked. She’s also frankly inclined not to trust Bernice, and, as she’s feeling so desperate to be pregnant, impatient with a woman who gave up her child. The differences between the women are initially entertaining, if conventional (Midler brings just the sort of brash energy she always brings, countering and reframing Hunt’s usual brittleness). Frank offers his own chorus-like affirmation (“You move me,” he professes to April, “It moves me that you’re trying something like this with her”), and so April makes tentative efforts to connect with the mother she doesn’t know.
Their evolving dynamic shifts when April discovers that she is, indeed, pregnant (not exactly a surprise, given the assembled plot pieces). Now she realizes that the baby is not just a matter of her own desire and future, but also involves a father, whose needs and expectations can’t precisely match her own.
Enter Dr. Masani (Rushdie). While he is relegated largely to nodding and making vaguely “surprised” faces when April enters the exam room with various emotional-supporters. The fact that he is Salman Rushdie, renowned post-colonialist, fatwa target, and philosopher of history and identity, makes the good doctor something of an emblem too. Just where he fits into this prescriptive tale remains a mystery.