Station Wagon Fender Bender Is Rachel Griffiths’ Big Break

Pip Karmel’s Me Myself I , from a screenplay by Ms. Karmel, might be regarded and possibly dismissed as still another one of those “what if” fantasies that have been coming out lately with increasing frequency, were it not for the stunningly comprehensive and charismatic dual performance of Rachel Griffiths as both Pamela Drury, successful career woman, and her alter ego Pamela Dickson, humdrum housewife and mother of three. One day, through a bit of screen sorcery, the single Pamela encounters the married Pamela, and what ensues is clearly a case of regretfully having one’s prayers answered.

The way Ms. Karmel’s script is constructed, the movie is focused almost entirely on the career woman Pamela after she has made the mistake of wondering idly what would have happened if she had married her old sweetheart Robert Dickson (David Roberts) years ago when she had the chance. In the trade-off she actually chose, she has traveled around the world as a celebrated award-winning journalist, but her rancid romantic life has been comprised mostly of pleasantly platonic relationships and blind dates from hell. From time to time she has even answered personal ads, only to end up alone in her messy apartment after midnight, gorging herself on junk food while watching heavy-breathing soft-core sex scenes on Australian television.

So when the married Pamela literally runs into the single Pamela with her family station wagon, the two contrasting existential versions of the same woman confront each other in married Pamela’s suburban home. The double image does not last very long, inasmuch as the married Pamela takes this opportunity to fly the coop without the family being any the wiser. As a consequence, a clueless career woman is awkwardly thrust into the strenuous stop-and-go work routine of the wife and mother she would have become if she had followed her heart instead of her head.

When hubby Robert returns home, his matter-of-fact demeanor suggests that most-if not all-of the magic has gone out of the marriage. At this point Ms. Karmel resists the temptation to veer into either madcap farce or fuzzy family sentimentality. Instead, the experimental couple unexpectedly evolve into complex characters, with first conflicting and then compatible agendas. Meanwhile, Pamela is reunited with two old lovers, both of whom are played by Sandy Winton.

Admittedly, the transitions back and forth between the two Pamelas are a bit on the shaky side as far as credibility are concerned. Indeed, it would take a fabulously flexible and accomplished piece of acting by Ms. Griffiths to keep Me Myself I from falling completely apart well before the final fade-out. And, fortunately, that’s exactly what Ms. Griffiths provides, with a display of detailed histrionic virtuosity such as comes along only once or twice in a decade.

What is particularly surprising about this one-woman breakthrough show from Ms. Griffiths is her previously overshadowed portrayals as a second fiddle to such bigger names as Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie (1998), Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Kate Winslet in Jude (1996), and Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wedding (1994). Ms. Griffiths did shine in her one feminine lead as a London heart-of-gold hooker in My Son the Fanatic (1998).

Still, one has the feeling through the 90′s that Ms. Griffiths piled on the mannerisms to compensate for being cast in essentially supporting roles. Some people may think she is still a bit mannered in Me Myself I. All I know is that from her first appearance on the screen to the last shot of her leaning triumphantly out a window I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. After a while I stopped keeping track of all the right acting choices she made at every turning point, and these were many and varied. I fully realize I have over-used the term “mesmerized” in my more exuberant reviews, but I must trot it out again as if it were for the first time. Nothing less will suffice to describe how bowled over I was when I saw the film.

Nor did I have to consult the program notes to discern how closely Ms. Griffiths had worked with Ms. Karmel to fashion a character so bumptiously vibrant and yet so delicately nuanced. I may be responding also to the peculiar genius of the best Australian films for hitting all the half-notes between comedy and pathos without becoming either strident or sappy. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Winton are excellent, too, as the two men in Pamela’s lives, both no pushovers for Pamela in the manner of the masochistic leading men in the old Bette Davis vehicles.

As for the attitude of the film, I can’t improve on the quotes attributed to writer-director Pip Karmel (“Regret is futile”), producer Fabien Liron (“Destiny always makes the right choice for you”), and co-producer Andrena Finlay (“The past is the past, you have to leave it behind”). Another way of putting it is that the heroine of Me Myself I is not nearly as egocentric as the title of her story suggests. She listens to other people, and can see their point of view. In the end she has learned to live with herself, to accept all the decisions of her life, and to generate a lot of fun in the process.

Me Myself I is Ms. Karmel’s first feature film as a writer-director after a decade (1984-1994) of making award-winning short films, both fiction and non-fiction, for Australian television. She was nominated for an Oscar for her editing of Scott Hicks’ Shine (1996), and the same year edited Mr. Hicks’ non-fictional The Ultimate Athlete . My auteurist research over the years has unearthed the curious fact that directors are more likely to come from the ranks of editors than of cinematographers. Of course, Ms. Karmel shortened the odds even further by writing her own screenplay, which was immediately snapped up, and by showing her directorial prowess with five short films for television.

Writers and actors, of course, have an easier path to the director’s chair than either editors or cinematographers. But why do cinematographers rank so low as future director material when their art and craft are the most essential of all in the film-making process? I suspect it is because by being able to do anything and everything with a camera that directors may desire, they get out of the habit of making personal decisions. In this context, cinematographers remind me of gifted tennis players in the past like Ilie Nastase and Hana Mandlikova, who had every shot in the book but often lost key points through indecision because of the fact that they had more options than their opponents. In any event, Ms. Karmel, whether as erstwhile writer, editor, or maker of short films, has earned the right to a long and fruitful directorial career on the strength of Me Myself I , one of the most striking feature-film debuts ever.

Ordinary People on Long Island

Eric Mendelsohn’s Judy Berlin , which he also wrote, turns out to be a lyrical lament for life’s losers, and for Long Island besides. After winning a slew of festival awards here and abroad, it has managed to linger awhile in limited release. It is an easy film to like and respect, if only because it is the kind of low-key undramatic project that makes the moguls with the big cigars snort with disgust.

“Where’s the action, where’s the sex? O.K. You don’t have money for stars or special effects, but you Sundance kids have cheap ways of getting customers on the sly. You can be more way out and low-down. But what’s all this crap about a town on Long Island called Babylon and an eclipse that makes all the characters look even more depressing and defeated than they would in the blazing sunlight? And where are the babes and studs? Everybody here looks ready for retirement. Who’s gonna pay 10 bucks for these boring people…Chekhov? Who the hell is Chekhov, and when has he ever opened a big weekend? Blah, blah, blah.”

For those of us who don’t mind a quiet night at the movies for the sake of an authentic talent, it might be noted that Mr. Mendelsohn, a native of Old Bethpage, Long Island, has placed himself in diametrical opposition to fellow Long Islander Hal Hartley, who once described Long Island as a long corridor with no door at the end. But Mr. Hartley, most notably in Trust (1991), expresses the point of view of young people who feel stifled by the sheer banality of suburbia. And for all his absurdist stylization, Mr. Hartley is no stranger to violence and melodrama.

By contrast, Mr. Mendelsohn loves ordinary people with all their frailties and failures, to the point that he invests them with dignity and nobility. One thinks back to Thornton Wilder and William Saroyan as bards of the commonplace when one looks at the ravishingly beautiful townscapes fashioned by Mr. Mendelsohn and his cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf. A gallery of gallant twilight performers is led by the late exquisite Madeline Kahn and includes Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Julie Kavner and Anne Meara. The younger generation is represented by Aaron Harnick (Ms. Barrie’s son), whose David Gold has returned to Babylon to live with his parents after his movie career fizzled in Los Angeles, and by The Sopranos ‘ Edie Falco as the title character, who is leaving Babylon for Los Angeles probably to face David’s fate.

David and Judy bond in their mutual insecurities after a chance reunion, but they are no more glowing with optimism than the older people Judy is leaving behind. After Judy Berlin , one wishes a better fate for Mr. Mendelsohn, though he may have gotten a break with Ms. Falco’s star power.