Waiting to Inhale

The displeasure principle: Dyana Ortelli in Luminarias

Women directors and actors--and, yes, critics--have been known to whine about the continuing lack of topical and complex female stories in the movies. So here are two comedy-dramas focusing on bright, troubled women: a Cornish widow who discovers that her husband left her rich in debt; and a Latina lawyer, in East L.A., whose husband wants to marry a white woman. You'd think I'd sit up and shut up, right? Well, I'll let you in on a little secret. Deep within the dryly politicized sensibilities of City Pages critics lies...the pleasure principle. It's true: I like to have fun at the movies! (Or at least not be constantly annoyed.) And for all their good intentions, Nigel Cole's Saving Grace and Jose Luis Valenzuela's Luminarias are not very much fun.

Saving Grace, starring the wonderful Brenda Blethyn of Secrets & Lies, is virulently annoying. Another mutation from the strain that brought us all those silly English comedies since The Full Monty (which was, actually, funny), Cole's feature depends for its humor on the usual village eccentrics. This time out, they're not only quaintly ugly, old, or obsessed with aliens: They're stoned! Whoo-hoo. The next level of British comedy has been achieved.

After her husband dies, orchid nurturer Grace (Blethyn) learns that she'll lose her Cornwall home if she doesn't raise a pile of money. When her gardener (Craig Ferguson, who also co-wrote the screenplay) asks her to save his wilting marijuana plants, Grace gets an idea: She'll use her greenhouse to grow pot. Reader, you could accurately describe every gag that ensues, sight unseen. Predictably, too, the drugs aren't, in the end, sold (that would be immoral!), although Grace does find everything she needs, including a (creepy) lover. About the only thing missing in this clichéd, condescending mess is Cheech Marin.

Happily, Marin makes an appearance in Luminarias, written by actress Evelina Fernandez (American Me) and directed by her husband Jose Luis Valenzuela. Here, in a poke at typecasting, Marin plays a UCLA professor. Indeed, the movie is packed with characters flip-flopping into the opposite behavior expected: Fiery lawyer Andrea, who loves her adulterous Chicano husband and despises white privilege, falls for Jewish lawyer Joseph (Scott Bakula); silky psychiatrist Sofia (Marta DuBois) dates white guys but yields to "a Mexican waiter." It gets so you expect the bait and switch.

Built around four professional Latinas and their love lives, Luminarias is very Waiting to Exhale (although Fernandez's script, in stage-play form, actually predates it). In other words, every character, female or male, remains a cipher--unless the viewer knows someone "like" her or him, and fills in the blanks. Maybe all white characters seem flimsy to nonwhite viewers (I fill in the blanks). But a role--whether here or in The Perfect Storm--should have more to it than an occupation and a racialized sexual preference. And there ought to be more depth in, say, a discussion of prejudice than: "Whites took our land!"..."Oh, get over the chip on your shoulder!" (Yes, the dialogue is stilted.) Or: "I've got this rage inside me, and you'll never understand"--this spoken to a Jew!

At least there is a discussion of prejudice and privilege in Luminarias--as opposed to the insulated Exhale (or most any white-made film). It's brave to put that exploration, however unhelpfully polarized, at the front and center of these women's lives. (It's not so brave to put romance at the front and center of women's lives--but hey, it's popular.) Many of the actors do transcend the awkward writing. And the filmmakers have done a lot with a limited budget. I understand, too, that Luminarias is not necessarily addressed to this white girl. I can't stop wishing, though, that a movie so dedicated to overturning clichés and relishing unexpected alliances delivered more unexpected pleasure.


Saving Grace starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema; Luminarias starts Friday at U Film Society.

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