At least, mercifully, there is no character in the film named Grace (Poetic Justice and Jason's Lyric may have exhausted that gimmick). Illeana Douglas plays the central role, a young Philadelphia blue blood named Edna Buxton who wins a singing contest and toddles off to New York, dreaming of a career as a recording star. But it's 1958, and she's just a hair too late to be the next Rosemary Clooney--guy groups are in.
But Edna has a unique and much more salable talent than singing: She writes her own songs. One of them catches the ear of fast-talking record promoter Joel Millner (John Turturro), who buys it for a group called the Stylettes. It becomes a hit, and Joel has Edna change her name to "Denise Waverly," gives her an office in the Brill Building, and puts her to work cranking out hits.
The film then follows Denise's life and career through the '60s and into the early '70s, through marriages and affairs and, um, more marriages and more affairs. Most pop-music buffs will by now have recognized that Edna/Denise is modeled on Carole King, and Joel on Don Kirshner, though stylistically the Turturro role more closely resembles Phil Spector. This modeling brings new meaning to the phrase "loosely based." It's a cool approach, actually; it allows the writer-director, Allison Anders, to develop a yarn that's entirely fictitious and yet recognizable and plausible, a sort of archetypal myth of pop. Best of all, it allows for the creation of ersatz period music, most notably a powerhouse ballad called "God Give Me Strength" co-written by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (dubbed for Douglas by Kristen Vigard).
Despite much comedy, Grace of My Heart is squarely in the weeper tradition of A Star Is Born: blazingly talented woman artist encumbered by her love for flawed males. The film's comic side is its best, however. Douglas, the lithe, homely-beautiful actress of Search and Destroy and To Die For, among other films, has killer timing, and she's marvelously inventive--she tries things that no other actress would even think of.
Her most startling achievement is the way she sets a different performance rhythm with each of the four principal actors she works opposite here. Her scenes with the jittery Turturro have a wonderful, friendly buzz to them. With Denise's first husband (Eric Stoltz, playing the rough equivalent of Gerry Goffin), there's an erotically charged sassiness. Toward her sweet, married lover (Bruce Davison), she shows an almost maternal protectiveness, and toward her troubled, brilliant second husband, a sort of Brian Wilson type played by Matt Dillon, you can sense her flat-out adoration.
This overlong film is mostly funny and agreeable for its first two thirds, while it stays in New York in the '60s--it's full of snappy little episodes that play against our expectations. The first record-industry guy that Douglas meets (Richard Schiff) doesn't turn out to be a rat, and neither does Joel Millner. The gorgeous Brit songwriter (Patsy Kensit) Joel hires turns out to be a good friend instead of a bitchy rival.
But beware the East Coast bias. As soon as Denise moves to California and marries the Brian Wilson type, the film falls apart faster than her life, sliding with alarming speed into incredibly maudlin melodrama. A cliche Dr. Feelgood (David Clennon) piles on a barrage of nonsensical '70s-style psychobabble that does not seem to be intended satirically. If the last 20 minutes or so were chopped right off, it wouldn't seriously weaken the narrative, and it would probably considerably enhance the entertainment value.
Anders is certainly a director of talent and appealing audacity, and Grace of My Heart is her best work yet. But it's a bit irritating to see her touted, in the press materials, as "one of the few women directing films with strong female characters," as if she were some important voice in feminist cinema.
Consider her previous films--Gas, Food, Lodging; Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life); the witch segment of Four Rooms. Sure, they're about women--women mooning over men, women fighting over men, women seeking the magical essence of men. And if it weren't for the unromantic spikiness of Douglas' acting, that's just how Grace of My Heart would come across. Even in a film that claims to be about a sister doing it for herself, Anders seems most interested in where the boys are.
Grace of My Heart:
Directed by Allison Anders; with Illeana Douglas, John Turturro, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Bruce Davison, Matt Dillon, Patsy Kensit, Bridget Fonda and Eric Stoltz.