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WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN. Directed by Luis Mandoki; written by Ronald Bass and Al Franken; produced by Jordan Kerner and Jon Avnet for Touchstone Pictures. Starring Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia. Rated R (language)


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When a Man Loves a Woman isn't the kind of love story you'd probably expect, at least not judging by its sexy starring couple.

It's a wrenching look at that couple's difficulties with alcoholism, a problem which hasn't been dealt with in movies much at all lately. And certainly not in the straightforward, relatively unvarnished way it's treated here.

As appealing as Garcia and Ryan are (and they manage to retain that audience-pleasing knack in strained circumstances) the movie is tough to watch. It's long, for one thing (slightly over two hours, and feeling like it) and intense enough that you'll feel pretty wrung-out by the time it's over.

But, unless you just can't stand to get those lumps in your throat at the movies, I think it's worth it. The script is witty (as you'd expect with "Saturday Night Live" regular Al Franken as co-writer) as well as moving, and the characters are finely drawn. And extremely well-acted.

The story takes us from the days when Alice (Ryan) and Michael (Garcia) are in heavy denial of Alice's drinking problem, through her "rock-bottom" experience, and into her recovery, a stage that puts more strain on their marriage than the drinking ever did.

In the course of observing these heart-breaking events, we get to know these two people more thoroughly than is usually possible in a movie. As an aside, we also learn a lot about dealing with an addiction, but not in a preachy way. The characters are always center stage.

I've been a fan of both stars for some time, but I was still somewhat surprised by the range they exhibit here. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is the performance of 9-year-old Tina Majorino, who plays their older daughter.

She has to show us almost as much anguish, fear and anger as the adults do. And in addition, she makes us feel, with little dialogue to describe it, the poignance of a childhood lost in the shuffle of trying to make it through each day.

There's a lot of talent in a small package here! And a lot to recommend When a Man Loves a Woman.

June 1, 1994

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