I got the dreaded flu. For a few days I was so sick that even watching TV was tiring. All I could do was read. (Not the worst fate.) When I finally felt ready for movies, I wanted ones that would be easy to watch, i.e. straightforward, and possibly uplifting—and woman-directed, of course. I chose two movies from last year: Megan Leavey (Gabriela Cowperthwaite) and Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola).
I had high hopes for Megan Leavey, for several reasons: 1) I’m a cat person with a soft spot for dog stories; 2) I’m interested in stories about women in the military; and 3) I sobbed my way through the trailer.
Unfortunately, this was one of those films whose trailer is more dramatic than the movie. I often hear professional reviewers say that they avoid watching previews and I’m beginning to see why. Not only do they contain plot spoilers, but I think they can set you up for an emotional ride that isn’t actually present in the movie. That’s what happened for me with Megan Leavey. I wanted a weepie but I never got attached to the heroine or her plight.
Megan Leavey is based on the true story of a marine corporal, her combat dog, and their experience in the Iraq War. Leavey (played by Kate Mara) joins the military while grieving the loss of a friend, and is initially an undisciplined recruit. But once she sets her sites on joining the combat dog division, she becomes more focused and learns to be an excellent trainer. She is paired with an unruly dog, Rex, who she has a knack for calming. She and Rex end up on a dangerous mission, one that they survive—but with severe injuries. Leavey’s hope is that they will retire together, but a military vet deems Rex too dangerous for civilian life. So then Leavey has to fight to get her dog back.
It’s a good story and was paced well, but the big problem was that I didn’t really know who Megan Leavey was. Several times in the film, she either tells people or is told that she’s “not good with people.” But throughout the film, she seems to be just fine with people, and has a number of friends. There’s also a sweet little romance threaded into the movie. To me, she actually didn’t seem to be very good with animals. I never understood how she learned to calm Rex. I also didn’t see much of a bond between the two of them, though the dog (or dogs) that played Rex had really expressive eyes. That dog’s eyes were probably why I cried during the trailer.
Edie Falco, who plays Leavey’s divorced mother, came across more clearly to me. Leavey blames her mother for her parents divorce—understandably, because her mother left her father for her father’s best friend. With just a few scenes, Falco gives a full portrait of this mother, showing you that even if her daughter’s judgment is reasonable, there’s another, more complicated side to the story. Every time she came on screen I felt like I was watching a different movie—and wished the rest of the film had been so alive.
Paris Can Wait was also underwritten, but like Megan Leavey, it was sincere and that made up for some of its shortcomings. More a travelogue than anything else, it follows Anne and Jacques, two acquaintances who end up on the road together for not very interesting reasons. Anne is the doting wife of a workaholic studio executive; Jacques works with Anne’s husband. Nothing crazy happens on their road trip, and the weather is always perfect. The only note of suspense is that Jacques might be lying to Anne and/or stealing her money. (But since he’s a colleague of her husband, this doesn’t seem likely.) There should have been a lot more will-they-or-won’t-they suspense but the sexual tension wasn’t there.
This was a debut for its director, Eleanor Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay. Coppola is 78 years old and in a bonus feature, Diane Lane remarked that she signed on for the film because she liked the idea of working on a set managed by an older woman. If the bonus feature is to be believed, it seems that the set was very easygoing and collaborative, with a mostly female crew, and some of that mellow vibe seeps into the film, in a good way. Diane Lane seemed especially relaxed in her performance. If you love her, or travel shows, or the south of France, this movie will satisfy. It also might be the thing when you’re home with the flu in the middle of winter and need a little sunshine in your life.