Committed (2000)

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By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Shapeshifting

“H

ow did I get committed?” This is the question that Joline (Heather Graham) asks herself, beholding her mirror image while dressing for her marriage ceremony. Wearing a lovely white gown, stylishly tangled hair, and a tattooed wedding band, Joline looks the very picture of about-to-be-wedded bliss. While she admits that her own parents provided no role models for long term commitment, she muses that perhaps some people — like herself for instance — are ready to commit by genetic flukiness. “Some people,” she says, “are just made from a different clay.” She’s one of those, she thinks, born with “a knack for faith.”

The first sign that her faith will soon be severely tested occurs when Joline’s betrothed, Carl (Luke Wilson), comes tap-tapping at her door. “You’re not supposed to be here before the wedding!” she frets, but within seconds the young lovers have thrown tradition and superstition to the proverbial wind, and are liplocked, coming up only for enough air to gasp, “I love you so much!”

Cut to “597 days later,” as Jo runs a New York City dance and music club. Jo’s “knack” isn’t always predicated on good business sense, but hey, she wears great club-ideal outfits (sheer blouses, pretty accessories, and tight jeans), and her clients love her. As does her brother Jay (Casey Affleck, giving his usual sprawled-out performance), introduced as a kind of hanger-on at the club, caught in the middle of a nonchalant couch cuddle with one of Jo’s employees (Summer Phoenix), a scene designed to show that he is not nearly so fierce about his own promises as Jo is about hers. There’s trouble brewing though. On returning home, Jo discovers that Carl, an aspiring photojournalist unhappy with shooting souffles and cupcakes for a local weekly, has upped and left her. As he puts it in a note, he needs “space.”

Space is a tricky concept, of course — it’s hard to tell it means, where it is, and who defines it — but Committed goes on to consider its shifting meanings and possibilities. On its surface, Jo’s ensuing behaviors might look ridiculous and desperate. She hosts Carl’s surprise birthday party without Carl, hiding in the bathroom with the cake until Jay and some other friends (Jon Stewart’s there for an unexplained minute, offering himself as Exhibit A of dickish conduct) convince her to cry and be mad at her heel of a husband. But it’s not in her to be angry: on the street outside her apartment, Jo comes upon a would-be car thief (Everclear’s Art Alexakis), and makes him her project. She gives him bus fare to get to his mother’s so he can “clean up,” and he gives her inspiration for the leap of faith that will drive the rest of the film.

As is the tendency in quirky road pictures, Jo encounters a series of quirky characters during her search for Carl, a search which eventually takes her to El Paso Texas, where she can look across the border to Juarez, Mexico. Carl, it turns out, hasn’t done much with his “space” — and there’s lots of desert here — as he’s still unhappy and resentful of his wife’s good luck (and he accuses her of “sucking” his own). The major changes in his life are a new job (at the El Paso Times, photographing chili cook-offs) and a new girlfriend, an energetic, if naive, Mariachi waitress named Carmen (Patricia Velazquez). As soon as she’s on the scene, Jo wins over Carl’s editor, Carmen, and Carmen’s medicine man grandfather, affectionately known as “Grampy” (played by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Arau, of Like Water for Chocolate fame). You’re beginning to see how she could have cramped the generally morose Carl’s style: Jo’s “knack” grants her an occasionally annoying perkiness and, apparently, a spiritual power that Grampy recognizes and taps. The old man gives her potions and rituals to follow, supposedly geared to “protect” Carl, in imminent danger of assault by Carmen’s psycho ex, a young Mexican truck driver named T-Bo (Mark Ruffalo), who threatens repeatedly to “tear his New York guts out.” Though Jo doesn’t let Carl know she’s watching over him, she does sit in her rental car down the street from his house trailer for days on end and chatting with the neighbors, including an adorable child or two and a pinata-maker named Neil (Goran Visnjic, best known as George Clooney’s “heartthrob” replacement on ER).

Everyone in the film admires Jo’s mettle, but you may ponder why she pursues her dream of being devoted — or more precisely, of being in a mutually devoted relationship — so fervently. At times her obsessiveness is distracting, as she refuses to see her own dependence on the “quest” for self. (She does recognize that, similar to the legendary spirits she’s heard about in the desert, Carl has “shapeshifted into a jerk.”) Ultimately, however, all this quirkiness and perkiness takes its toll: the film involves too many funky little encounters by way of developing an identity for Jo, which has already been laid out quite deftly in the film’s first 15 minutes or so, while she’s in New York. The lengthy El Paso section allows her little change, but seems more intent on comparing her to the “local color,” which makes her appear slightly less odd than she might have in another context, and also more white (for lack of a better term). Though Grampy extols her capacity for vision and faith, she still comes off looking rather like a tourist.

Then again, this may be the point. In New York, before Jo hits the road, two key scenes establish the possibility that Jo is not quite so innocent and straight-up as she appears. During the first, a lonely Jo has stayed over at Jay’s apartment. There, she learns more than she wants to know about his intimate relations with one of his roommates, Jenny (Kim Dickens), when, at the breakfast table, he and she are fondle and sweet-talk one another. That this happens in front of Jenny’s girlfriend Mimi (Clea Duvall) upsets Jo, perhaps even more than it does Mimi. When Jo attempts to intervene indirectly, speaking in favor of marriage and commitment, Jenny blows her off, saying that she has tried marriage, and while it’s a nice place to visit, she doesn’t want to live there. This distinction, between visiting and living in commitment, is pretty much how Jo sees the world, and she chides Jenny for being so crass. What Jo doesn’t see though, is what happens after she leaves the room in a panic, and that is, the girls’ make up embrace between (and Jay’s clumsy attempt to horn in, in an imitation of a “group hug”). That Jenny and Mimi have another kind of commitment dynamic is unthinkable for Jo, who can only understand the one she wants and imagines, foreclosing on all other models or compromises (in El Paso, she’ll learn that compromise can be a good thing, but it will be a long hard road to that lesson). That you do see this alternative dynamic, allows you to step away from Jo for a moment, and that in turn sets a useful precedent for the rest of the film: you can appreciate or disapprove of her action, you aren’t committed to her.

A second scene shows another kind of commitment that might be less than ideal. In this instance, the film lets you watch and identify with Jo at the same time. She and Jay are poring over a map, on their elbows on the floor, as she determines her route to find Carl. Jay marvels at her tenacious love and wonders where it comes from: one thing leads to another, and they end up in a mouth-to-mouth kiss that lingers just a bit longer than it should. Jo admonishes him: “Jay, I’m married.” And then, “Plus, I’m your sister.” On one level, this response reinforces Jo’s committedness: her marriage is her first priority; the incest thing, well, that’s something else. Had the film done anything else with this slightly offbeat relationship, it wouldn’t be the mostly light-touch romantic quest that it sort of is. Instead of pursuing their sibling affections, however, the film uses Jay as Jo’s emotional (and, to an extent, moral) opposite, the more typical child of divorce, obviously damaged and foolish, unwilling to promise anything. The fact that his lesson — learned when he follows Jo to El Paso to “protect” her — also involves compromise and border crossing, makes the case that neither hard line approach, complete commitment and complete vacillation, is particularly healthy or maintainable.

These two New York episodes complicate your relationship to Jo, whose mostly entertaining voice over doesn’t quite make her the transparent soul you might expect. Her search during the film is only ostensibly for Carl. But she’s really looking for meaning. What she finds in El Paso is a community of believers with a built-in set of symbols and rites. “Nobody has to make up any meanings,” she says happily. “They’re already there.” Unlike the big city, where meanings are frighteningly fluid, in the old school Tex-Mex mix of cultures, readable signs and traditional values are available everywhere. Still, Jo is a visitor. She doesn’t really live there, and she can and must move on.

The question that initiates the film remains compellingly unanswered: how do you get committed? You can define this as committed to a relationship, committed to a dream, or committed to a mental institution (where Jo also spends some tourist time): the film doesn’t make you commit to one only. It’s the process, the “how,” that is most important.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/committed/