Danny and Anna, the hero and heroine of Music From Another Room, meet portentously: Danny, at the age of 6, is pressed into service helping his father deliver Anna when her mother (wonderful Brenda Blethyn) goes into labor unexpectedly at a party. The umbilical cord wraps around Anna's neck, and Danny's the only one with small enough hands to untangle it. After Anna's been safely birthed, Danny vows, "I'm going to marry her," and while the grown-ups chuckle, we in the audience know where the story's headed. The two are linked from childhood by fate, like Pip and Estella in Great Expectations.
Yet somehow what follows is nothing so turgid as all that. The film is just a mild, comically tinged little romance--it might be called Slight Expectations. It's a bit ragged and hurried at times, especially in the final third, but on the whole, it's a pleasantly engaging tale of the power of love over dysfunction--sort of a social-realist You Can't Take It With You.
Twenty-odd years later, Danny, now played by handsome Brit Jude Law, returns to the California town where the film began, and reenters the life of Anna, now played by pretty Gretchen Mol, and her eccentric family.
Danny is now an art restorer, specializing in mosaic tiles--what a promising future--who works part-time as a delivery boy for a bakery. In the latter capacity, he re-meets Anna, who now frets and fusses and plays caretaker to her dotty clan: her genial, life-loving Mom, her cynical Dad (Bruce Jarchow), her tough, witty feminist sister Karen (Martha Plimpton), her philandering brother (Jeremy Piven) and his passionately co-dependent wife (Jane Adams). Anna's most strenuous fretting and fussing, however, is reserved for her blind, skittish sister Nina, played by Jennifer Tilly, taking a hard-earned and no doubt welcome break from breathy bimbo roles.
Other jobs come Danny's way through Anna's family. He accepts the role of a pig--a symbol of maleness--in one of Karen's theater productions, and he also takes a position reading to Nina. Somehow Nina never learned Braille, and she's given to panic attacks when she's out of the house, so when Danny takes her to places like gardens and dance clubs in order to help create the atmosphere of the book he's reading her (that old dance-club favorite Anna Karenina!), what he's really trying to do, of course, is bring her out of her shell. He's smashingly successful--Nina even meets a nice young man at the club--but that only makes the anxious, stability-loving Anna more suspicious of him.
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Writer-director Charlie Peters seems much less interested in the Danny/Anna love story than he is in presenting a portrait of a curious family, and that is, indeed, what's best about Music From Another Room. The imposing title, by the way, refers to how, when an overheard tune coming from elsewhere in the house is interrupted by noise, you know just where it will pick up when you can hear it again; it's Danny's metaphor for the psychic connection between people who love each other.
Anna and Danny never quite seem to have that link between them. This is probably because Anna is so much more bland than anyone else in the film that we've stopped paying attention to her by the time she starts yielding to Danny's charms over those of her handsome, square, rich--and therefore plainly unsuitable--boyfriend (Jon Tenney). But that "music" does seem to echo between Danny and the other family members. With humor and a minimum of sentiment, Peters and his acting ensemble manage to generate some of the bracing, often prickly warmth that is the joy of a loving family. As pointedly "small" and low-key a film as Music From Another Room is, that's still not an accomplishment to be dismissed.
Music From Another Room
Directed by Charlie Peters; with Jude Law, Jennifer Tilly, Gretchen Mol and Brenda Blethyn.