Sweeps Stunt

The independent production-distribution company the Shooting Gallery probably got a lot more attention when Monica Lewinsky showed up in Washington wearing a cap with its logo than it is likely to get from the release of The 24 Hour Woman, a modest, deserving film from writer-director Nancy Savoca. Savoca made three earlier features, True Love (1989), Dogfight (1991), and Household Saints (1993). Their virtues did not lend themselves to high-concept marketing -- which may explain the long gap between Household Saints and The 24 Hour Woman. And, despite its virtues, this new film feels like something of a safe retreat from the increasing edginess of its predecessors.

Rosie Perez stars as Grace Santos, producer of the The 24 Hour Woman, a New York version of one of those local TV shows that follow the big, early-morning network offerings. Grace works under the creepy direction of the vile Joan Marshall (Patti LuPone), whose heart has long since been replaced by a Nielsen meter.

As the title suggests, the show is directed toward women, with irritatingly bubbly Margo Lynn (Karen Duffy) cohosting with hunky Eddie Diaz (Diego Serrano), who just happens to be Grace's husband. When Margo discloses on the air Grace's recently confirmed pregnancy, Joan decides to boost ratings by turning the developments of the remaining months into a regular segment on the show. With luck -- from Joan's point of view -- Grace will manage to give birth during sweeps week.

Grace puts up token resistance to this exploitative idea, but even she realizes its commercial potential: In fact, it proves to be the program's ticket to a network slot.

The only island of sanity in Grace's life during this frenetic period is her new assistant, Madeline Labelle (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who has just returned to working after six years at home raising two kids. Now that her husband, Roy (Wendell Pierce), is out of work, he agrees to take over her former household duties, despite a certain male reluctance to become a househusband.

Thematically, the media exploitation of Grace's pregnancy turns out to be something of a red herring: It has no repercussion beyond the film's first half-hour. The middle third of the film details Grace's attempts to get back to work and to disengage from daily contact with Lili, her baby. About two-thirds through the movie, Savoca leaps forward a year to a crisis that develops around Lili's first birthday party, as Grace's careful career/motherhood balancing act finally crumbles.

In most ways this feels like a more conventional film than Savoca's previous work: It's possible to imagine any number of faceless, if talented, hacks having directed it. At its worst it has a bizarre unevenness of tone, as though major adjustments were made to soften its most dramatic developments.

In particular there is the misplaced sense of dread that permeates much of the action. From the moment Grace's pregnancy is turned into an entertainment event, the film has a nervous sense of foreboding: Is something terrible suddenly going to happen? Will Grace miscarry? Will the nanny turn out to be an irresponsible flake? Something is going to happen!

It may well be that Savoca creates this mood to mirror the obsessive internal state of first-time motherhood. Or that my professional obligation to see more horror and suspense films than is probably healthy has skewed my consciousness so that perfectly innocent little misunderstandings in a basically light film come across as setups for a catastrophic plot shift.

In either case it should only enhance, not spoil, viewers' pleasure if I put your minds to rest right now: Nothing really irrevocable or tragic happens. Phew.

What makes the film a pleasant diversion is the quality of the major performances. It was possible to assume, from Perez's earliest roles in Do the Right Thing (1989) and Night on Earth (1991), that she was a talented but one-note actress -- essentially playing herself. That assumption was first proved false in Peter Weir's Fearless (1993), for which she received an Oscar nomination, and is further contradicted by her work here. (On the other hand, nothing suggests that Karen Duffy's range goes beyond the trademark hyperkinetic brashness that makes her such perfect casting here.)

Jean-Baptiste is perfect in an even subtler performance. Best known as the unacknowledged daughter in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, she has so totally ditched her English accent that she may not even be recognized by that film's devotees. And Pierce is quite touching as a good-natured husband struggling with the real-world problems of suddenly becoming the primary caregiver.

The 24 Hour Woman.
Directed by Nancy Savoca. Written by Savoca and Richard Guay. Starring Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patti LuPone, Karen Duffy, Diego Serrano, and Wendell Pierce.

 
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