November 22, 2016
“I squandered a really good career. What can I say?” – Paul Brickman to Salon
After the phenomenal success of Risky Business (1983), writer-director Paul Brickman was offered hundreds of screenplays to adapt. Brickman rejected them all, including future hits Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Frustrated with the Geffen Film Company’s imposed happy ending on Risky Business, he instead bided his time until Men Don’t Leave (1990) crossed his desk seven years later. A finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief – it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.
The project originated with the obscure French tearjerker La Vie Continue (1981), which screenwriter Barbara Benedek (The Big Chill) adapted into an English-language screenplay. Brickman told Randy Lofficier at the WGA that, “I don’t believe Men Don’t Leave was truly a remake. It evolved into something far removed from the original. Initially I was presented with a script by Barbara Benedek. While I could have had access to the original material, I chose to avoid it, so as not to be influenced by it. I wanted to stay true to Barbara’s voice. I did not see the original film until well after the script was completed.” The finished script, credited to both Brickman and Benedek, is an anatomy of repressed melancholy.
The Macauley family suffers a traumatic blow when father John (Tom Mason) dies in a tragic construction accident. Drowning in debt from their unfinished kitchen remodel, mother Beth (Jessica Lange) forces her kids Chris (Chris O’Donnell) and Matt (Charlie Korsmo) to move from the suburbs and into Baltimore, so she can take on a string of demeaning service jobs. Each family member avoids the mourning process in their own way. The teenaged Chris becomes infatuated with a nurse (Joan Cusack) in their building, while the tween Matt spends his afternoons robbing VCRs and selling them to a bootleg porn dubber (Kevin Corrigan). Beth has no time to grieve, and cultivates her hopes of happiness around Charles Simon (Arliss Howard), an experimental musician who flirts his way into her life.
The early sequences establish the Macauleys’ easy rapport but also Beth’s inadvertent isolation. John is a construction foreman idolized by his sons. John soaks up this love so unthinkingly that he often cuts Beth out of the loop. On a random weekday he takes the kids to a worksite, but without telling Beth he takes them to a movie after. Brickman and his editor Richard Chew (returning from Risky Business) cuts from the clamor and excitement of John’s job, with Matt playing in an excavator, to an image of Beth alone leaning on the kitchen island, waiting for dinner to finish. There is no sound except for some ambient crickets. It is an image that passes quickly but one that lingers – even in this supposed domestic bliss Beth is being sidelined, taken for granted.
As in Risky Business, Brickman makes use of expressive POV shots, though instead of dreamlike fantasies, they are haunting memories that Beth cannot shake. In the unreal aftermath of John’s death (which is not shown), Beth has to navigate a labyrinthine hospital, taking a wrong turn and ending up in the kitchen, where the staff is slicing up fish. This image will return to Beth throughout the film, an uncanny moment of estrangement from the world that Beth takes the entire movie to recover from. Discussing his work on Risky Business with the Editors Guild, Richard Chew paraphrases Buñuel : “Fantasy and reality are equally personal and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.” The use of the hospital sequence in Men Don’t Leave serves a similar purpose as those in Risky Business, that is, to enter more deeply into the protagonists’ headspace.
From this point on, Beth battles depression, and fully succumbs after she loses her job at a gourmet food store managed by a short-haired Kathy Bates. The world seems to have collapsed around her, so she refuses to leave her bed for weeks, the apartment getting buried in filth. Chris spends most of his time with the nurse – a fascinating character deftly played by Joan Cusack. She is an eccentric loner who at first seems to be exploiting Chris’ youth, getting a thrill out of a younger guy, but she reveals complicating facets as the film unspools – including a boundless sympathy for Beth’s debilitating depression.
Meanwhile Matt has been hanging with his suburban buddy ripping off middle-class homes of their home entertainment gear, and is welcomed as another son into his friend’s family. This subplot is highlighted by a pudgy, preposterously young Kevin Corrigan as a sleazy porn dubber and fence, his bedroom festooned with a bank of CRT TVs. The Macauley family unit is fracturing and about to splinter entirely. As Dave Kehr, one of Brickman’s most eloquent supporters, put it in his Chicago Tribune review of Men Don’t Leave, it is a “subtly subversive film, suggesting that America’s most sacred and apparently solid institution, the nuclear family, is in reality as fragile as a spider’s web, collapsing into confusion with the slightest brush of fate.”
Eventually, Matt can no longer repress his emotions and runs away from home, back to the playhouse in his old backyard, the one his dad built for him. When Beth and Chris finally find him, they all mutually, and silently, accept their need to grieve. It is a powerfully moving sequence that reduced this new dad to a blubbering mess. Jessica Lange, who invested Beth with mutating contradictions – she is an optimistic depressive, a fragile ditz with indomitable determination – can put on a good face no longer. It is a scene of immense sadness in which they accept the void of their loss.
Men Don’t Leave was also funded by the Geffen Film Company, and like Risky Business, ends on an optimistic note. I am curious to know if Brickman wanted the film to end in the playhouse, or carry on to the literally sunny conclusion, which re-unites the Macauley friends and family in a blissful summer frolic. Whatever the truth of the production history, it doesn’t detract from the movie’s accomplishment. It is a brutal, cathartic and brilliantly acted melodrama that more than proves that Risky Business was no fluke. But this is not a story of failure, but one of admirable integrity – and of two remarkable films. I’ll end with words from Brickman’s editor Richard Chew: “I’m still friends with Paul. I wish he would have made more films, but at the end of the day, he wasn’t comfortable with the compromises necessary in Hollywood. He’s his own man. That’s why I love him.”