What Not to Watch: “When a Man Loves a Woman”

In yet another occurrence of the endless battles between the sexes last week, my brother and I were vying to watch The Watch on HBO Go while our girlfriends preferred to watch a romantic movie. Once my brother’s xenophobia (the fear of real aliens, not the racist kind) kicked in and The Watch was out, the four of us found ourselves settling in for When a Man Loves a Woman, a 1994 romantic drama starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan.

So. Dang. ’90s!

As the resident movie snob in my family, I was frightened to watch When a Man Loves a Woman, and perhaps rightfully so. Meg Ryan plays Alice Green, a school counselor who is married to Michael (Andy Garcia), a pilot for some anonymous airline. The film opens on Alice eating lunch in some crowded place where she gets hit on by some random guy. When Andy Garcia walks up to also hit on her, you think this is how they first meet and eventually get hitched. Instead, we get an awkward scene where he seductively flirts a bit before telling her to pick up the dry cleaning. Then she straddles him and they make out in this crowded public place. As it turns out, they are a married couple already and just messing around. That’s one way to play a prank!

You realize after the fact that this is a movie about Alice’s alcoholism, and the opening scene was just the first in a series of events that chronicles her decline and eventual recovery. What the film does very well is portray the complex nature of addiction. Addicts can very easily recognize when their behavior negatively impacts their lives, but it becomes incredibly difficult when their behavioral patterns are consistently reinforcing their engagement in the addiction. Guilt leads to sadness and then sadness leads to a need for comfort in the form of the thing that made the addict feel guilty to begin with. Therein lies the endless cycle which is almost always coupled with the constant stance of denial and defiance, even defensiveness, when confronted about it. They can see the problems but choose to look away because they don’t want to admit their own faults. In a lot of ways, denial is so much easier and familiar. There’s a reason why admitting that you have a problem is always the first step. Simply put, it is the absolute hardest part of recovery.

All of this is portrayed quite effectively in Alice’s story, how years of behaving a certain way have molded a lifestyle that solidifies her alcoholism. For instance, after a drunken night out for her anniversary with Michael, she goes to work hungover. Partway through the day, a stressed out colleague approaches her saying that she needs a “wine night” to unwind. Because this is typical behavior that just so happens to coincide with the previous night of binging, Alice goes along with it knowing full well that she shouldn’t. During what could be the next day, next week, or next month, she’s struggling to throw away a bottle of vodka at the curb before instead pulling it out of the trash to chug it like water. In all of this it is clear: Alice knows that she has a problem but she is in too deep to seek help.

Repeatedly, Michael can be relied upon to passively condone and enable his wife’s behavior. He goes so far as to joke about it casually at times! In one particular scene, their two daughters are fighting and she tries to resolve it despite a gargantuan hangover, Michael swoops in and tells the girls to “stop bothering Mommy!” and that she can’t handle anything else. What could very well just be a misguided gesture of kindness turns into a belittling act of condescension. Does Michael love Alice because she a fun drunk and a good time, or because he loves her? Why is this movie even called When a Man Loves A Woman when it’s about how her alcoholism tears apart their family and in the process of recovering from it, reveals the gaping hole that was always in their relationship to begin with?

Bad things keep happening yet he does nothing to confront his wife or provide the support that she needs to beat her addiction. In fact, he actively participates in her drunken actions. When a car alarm on the street they live on goes off for no reason, she stumbles over with a carton of eggs and throws them at the vehicle, even climbing on top to writhe in a disturbingly sexual manner. Rather than, oh, I don’t know, coaxing her down to sober up inside over coffee, Michael throws an egg himself and giggles like a mischievous little boy. Then he flies away the next day on work leaving his wife and babysitter to contend with taking care of the family.

Things come to a head when Michael is away for work (he’s a pilot after all!). Alice comes home drunk and screams at the babysitter to leave. After drinking some more and smacking her daughter in the face, she crashes through the glass window of their shower, thus scarring her daughter for life into thinking that her mother died. It’s depressing to think that something like this had to happen before Alice was finally admitted to rehab. We see very little of her recovery beyond a scene of her detox. Instead, the story focuses on the home front: children acting out and Michael not being able to cope with the stress.

When the family is reunited and Alice is sober, it’s clear that “normal” is never going to happen again, and the peculiar co-dependency that Alice and Michael had is revealed. Michael needed Alice to be emotionally dependent on him so that he can establish a measure of power and control in his life. This symbiotic relationship was functional before but relied on Alice’s alcoholism to flourish. Once Alice is sober, outspoken, and more assertive in her choices, Michael loses his ability to relate to her and their relationship quickly flounders. Michael becomes possessive and resentful of Alice’s new relationships with her fellow addicts and generally doesn’t understand why things have changed so much for them. In what rather clearly is caused by his egocentrism, Michael does not realize that the nature of their relationship was one of the biggest fuels for her addiction. It was a romance based on indulgence and excitement, rather than sober commitment. When confronted with a dose of reality, Michael is the one who cannot cope. Rather than engage in meaningful discussion and working towards a middle ground, Michael retreats eventually moves out.

Before long, he is offered a new position based out of Denver that both he and Alice agree he should take, and his move comes right before Alice’s 180 Days Sober event at her Alcoholics Anonymous group. There’s a rightfully sad series of goodbyes between Michael and their two daughters before Michael is fully estranged from his family. In the final scene of the movie, Alice delivers an earnest account of her addiction that includes her regret at letting it destroy her marriage. And, sure enough, just as the crowd mills about congratulating her, Michael is there to embrace her and kiss all of her woes away.

When a Man Loves a Woman concludes like every great 90s romance should, but when you have a movie that posits itself as grim portrayal of addiction, it’s hard to believe a clean and neat happy ending. The movie bounces from one heavy scene to the next with very little relief, comic or otherwise. It could work if they actually made you care about the characters, but at no point are you ever shown Alice or Michael’s redeeming qualities. They are mutually destructive and ambivalent to what really matters. Only when Alice’s accident forces them to confront deeper issues do they even consider changing. We are forced to feel sympathy for Alice because of her condition but we are never shown why we should care about these people. Ultimately, the film fails due to a lack of characterization and it fails to say anything significant even if it does have a rather realistic depiction of the nature of addiction and the damage it can cause.