Friday November 1, 1996

     Gena Rowlands glows in her son Nick Cassavetes' endearing "Unhook the Stars" as a woman coming to the realization that she's reaching a crossroads in her life. A beautiful, wise, 60ish widow, Rowlands' Mildred has stayed on in the large old house where she has raised her son and daughter, but as life goes on with its constant and unexpected changes she comes to feel increasingly left behind and alone.
     No wonder, then, she jumps at the chance at baby-sitting J.J. (Jake Lloyd), the nice little 6-year-old who lives across the street. One morning, J.J.'s mother, Monica (Marisa Tomei), knocks on Mildred's door in sheer desperation. Stuck in a split-shift job at the local creamery and having just thrown out her husband (David Thornton) the night before, Monica can't believe her luck in finding someone so willing to help her care for J.J.--on a regular basis and for free.
     Millie is a vibrant, take-charge type, a good storyteller who even makes working through an encyclopedia as much fun as baseball--well, almost. And just as Mildred and J.J. become best friends, so do the elegant, poised Millie and the loud, edgy, relentlessly foul-mouthed Monica. It's a joy to watch such accomplished actresses play two seemingly different women form such a firm bond.
     But taking a broader, deeper perspective, Cassavetes and his co-writer, Helen Caldwell, move beyond their celebration of friendship, as warm and appealing as it is, to propel Mildred into a confrontation with herself, an awareness that it would be very easy to slip prematurely into a lonely old age.
     Like his late father, John, Cassavetes is an actor-oriented director--but then he's been an actor himself. He has a sure sense of structure: The unfolding of Mildred's life is most effective, but he needed to fill in the background more fully. We know very well what his people are like and have a sense of how they got that way, but we'd also like to know how they earn their living. We also need to know more about Millie, who seems to have no life at all until J.J. comes along. Has she no friends or social activities? If so, why not?
     Nonetheless, Rowlands is in her usual top form, and so is Tomei. In Millie's scenes with her grown daughter (Moira Kelly), who's going through a hostile, independence-craving stage, and her upwardly mobile son (David Sherrill) with a snooty wife (Bridgette Wilson), we can see that she probably was too bossy with her daughter and too indulgent with her son--and that Millie's smart and honest enough to accept herself as a less-than-perfect human being.
     But Millie strikes a French Canadian trucker, Big Tommy (Gerard Depardieu), whom she meets in a bar while out on the town with Monica, as a "real woman." You're eager for more of Depardieu and Rowlands, two nonpareil performers of the cinema, together. On the other hand, Depardieu's relatively small screen time does lend the film a certain subtlety.
     There's no question that in his first feature as a director Nick Cassavetes reveals the influence of his father, and certainly he's learned the importance of depth of character from both parents. Yet you have the feeling in this tender, often funny film that this Cassavetes is definitely his own man.


Unhook the Stars, 1996. R, for strong language. A Miramax & Hachette Premiere presentation. Director Nick Cassavetes. Producer Rene Cleitman. Executive producer Bernard Bouix. Screenplay by Cassavetes & Helen Caldwell. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Editor Petra von Oelffen. Costumes Tessa Stephensen. Music Steven Hufsteter. Production designer Phedon Papamichael Sr. Set decorator Barbara Ward. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Gena Rowlands as Mildred. Marisa Tomei as Monica. Gerard Depardieu as Big Tommy. Jake Lloyd as J.J..