***½/**** Image A Sound A
starring Ashley Judd, Luke Perry, Bruce Young, Jim True
screenplay by Peg Haller & Bob Schneider
directed by John McNaughton
by Bill Chambers I might be apocryphally attributing this to Pauline Kael, but I'm fairly confident that it was she who said there's no such thing as bad acting, only bad casting. When people hear that John McNaughton's Normal Life stars Luke Perry and Ashley Judd, they tend to lose interest, but to quote another of my favourite critics, Alex Jackson, "a great performance incorporates and molds a persona. It deals with it. Their body, voice, and persona are inescapable facts [and] the greatness of a performance lies in nothing more [than] the acknowledgment of these facts." It's interesting that the contemporary actors most likely to be credited with soul-searching to find the emotional truths of a character--Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, even Mark Ruffalo--are heirs apparent to Lon Chaney, gradually transforming themselves from without. In the same piece quoted above, a review of Midnight Express published just prior to last year's Academy Awards, Jackson says he values Christina Ricci's work in Monster over that of her co-star Charlize Theron: Where Ricci plumbs the depths of her established screen persona, Theron's aesthetically-assisted turn is so anomalous in terms of her career as to register as standoffish. "I suspect that it takes more courage to be an icon than an actor," Jackson brilliantly surmises.
Perry and Judd triumph in Normal Life because they're giving us the ideal versions of Luke Perry and Ashley Judd. External enhancements end with a moustache for the clean-cut Perry and country-and-western hair for the pixielike Judd, and the shortcomings of both actors are transformed into virtues by the demands of their characters: Perry's James Dean bluff lends just the right amount of faux-swagger to his small-town cop, Chris, while Judd finds the perfect outlet for her sadomasochistic crutch in the tormented Pam. Drawn together as if by cosmic spite, Chris and Pam meet-cute within moments of Chris telling his brother Mike (Jim True) that defying his wife in an argument over money was the right thing to do. (Later, Mike will say to Chris "I told you marriage is expensive," to which Chris will reply, tasting crow, "Pam is worth it.") On cue, the cherubic blonde at the other side of the bar shatters a glass in frustration, slicing her hand open and sending Chris into white-knight mode. Intentionally or not, the scene invokes Humbert Humbert's immanently-quotable apologia for his arrested development: "...The poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open..."
That Normal Life casually invites free-associations to Lolita offers some clue as to its lasting obscurity. (It barely qualifies as a cult film.) That McNaughton directed it fills in the remaining blanks. Like the corrosive Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, McNaughton's feature debut, the picture pulls a bait-and-switch of sorts, promising through a sensationalistic prologue a penny-dreadful only to shine a flashlight between the lurid details and watch something truly unseemly skitter out. He's an exploitation filmmaker less in the grindhouse sense than in the documentary sense, and he shares with fellow Chicagoans John Hughes and Steve James a class-consciousness that humanizes what the rest of American cinema so often marginalizes. (The U.S. correlatives to Ken Loach, Alan Clarke, et al all seem to hail from the Windy City.) Where McNaughton departs from his colleagues is in his use of nihilism to stimulate change: Inspired by true stories, his two best films (Henry... and Normal Life) are thus being told in the past tense--and the people in them are such lost causes as to solicit middle-class guilt. McNaughton also specializes in crime stories, using the antisocial behaviour that manifests itself at the two poles of the social stratum (remembering that Wild Things--originally titled Sex Crimes--revolved around insane rich people) as a springboard to denouncing violence, or at least deglamourizing it.
Because of this, McNaughton's films tend to feel post-modern, with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer's arrival near the end of the VHS boom's horror cycle transforming it into a movie about slasher movies (we watch the characters watch the picture's set-piece, a harrowing home-invasion they've captured on videotape) and the release of Normal Life positioning it as a corrective to Tony Scott's seductively dishonest True Romance. And in its demystification of a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde, in its consideration of the pathology of outlaw lovers, Normal Life becomes both the most confrontational and most accessible work of McNaughton's career. It's a movie composed of relationship verities, one that not only could've easily supported the dorky tagline of Maria Full of Grace ("Based on 1,000 true stories"), but also suggests a penance for the fairytale machinations--to say nothing of the cipher heroine--of Mad Dog & Glory. Emotionally and somewhat sexually pornographic, Normal Life has the courage to depict love as a poor man's purgatory--the self-esteem just isn't there in Chris or Pam to keep them from passive-aggressively testing each other. (Pam's conduct at the funeral for Chris' father is the single most violent act in all of McNaughton.) Your "enjoyment" of the film will depend on whether you allow that movies offering communion (i.e., the familiar) are just as valid as those promising comfort food (i.e., the routine), although admiring it in any capacity will probably require checking your ego at the door.
New Line releases Normal Life on DVD in a definitive 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. (Although the film went straight to HBO, it was framed with theatrical play in mind.) The presentation wrings almost enough lustre from Jean de Segonzac's cinematography to infringe on its tabloid ethic, but the slight oversaturation is greater cause for alarm and a non-issue at that. Revealing of economic shifts, the picture was recorded in the ultra-cheap Ultra Stereo process to keep the budget down but has been upgraded to 5.1 for DVD and configured for both DTS and Dolby Digital playback. A moment where Pam unloads a machine gun inside a bank stands as a particular highlight of this remix, and while it sounds fittingly startling in DTS, the point is that you can't really go wrong with either track. Sadly, a block of trailers for Amongst Friends, Proof (1991), and Kansas City is the disc's lone supplement; McNaughton came to blows with the studio for sending the film straight to cable, which might account for the absence of a director's commentary. Originally published: April 18, 2005.