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Unhook the Stars Nick Cassavetes (15)

Unhook the Stars is a straightforward film but a complex document. The director, Nick Cassavetes (he also co-wrote the screenplay, with Helen Cordwell), is a child of famous parents and, with his first film, he undertakes an impeccably Oedipal project. By sitting in the director's chair, he is setting out to replace his father John, archetype of the American independent film-maker, and by casting his mother Gena Rowlands in the lead, he is paying homage to her talent and her glamour, as his father in his films so often did.

Rowlands is a wonderful actress, capable of hitting every note on the scale from fierce to vulnerable, classy to brassy. The part she plays is that of Mildred, long widowed, with two grown-up children, whose life is shaken up by the intervention of a neighbour. Monica (Marisa Tomei) has broken up with her abusive boyfriend, she's got to go to work, will Mildred look after her son JJ, he's six, he's quiet but real smart, just for one day?

About five seconds later, Mildred is saying she'll need a sweater for JJ, a coat, a belt, a blanket, toys and two phone numbers for Monica, home and work. Nobody who saw John Cassavetes's Gloria (1980) will doubt Gena Rowlands's ability to work with a child, though Jake Lloyd in the new film is almost unnervingly sweet. He's a model of politeness and attention, and, of course, one day's babysitting turns into a long-term arrangement.

Mildred's own sweetness is relieved by her incompetence with her family. With strangers, her reflexes are good, and with children she is terrific, but she can't draw boundaries with her own kids. The moment she hears that her daughter-in-law is pregnant, she says they ought to be thinking of names. When her rebellious daughter in effect capitulates, and gets a job with a view to attending college - everything Mildred wants for her - she can't leave it at that, but has to make objections about the proposed choice of course.

Mildred and Monica, the surrogate mother and the real, have very different class assumptions and opposite styles of behaviour. One of the well-managed things about Unhook the Stars is the way it seems to promise stereotypical showdowns between the women, and then changes tack. JJ hurts himself while in Mildred's care, and, sure enough, Monica comes into the hospital hysterical and starts screaming and swearing, but it's not at Mildred. It's the only way she knows to speed the bureaucratic process (and it works). Mildred is all apologies, but Monica isn't so protective - "He's a boy. He's supposed to get hurt."

When JJ's seventh birthday approaches, Mildred buys him a bicycle. Again, we are set up to think she's using her money to buy affection, but this is just the sort of negotiation she's good at. Monica has given her approval. Mildred fights the temptation to be smothering and is able after only two weeks to stop following JJ in the car when he goes on his paper round (actually her paper round, or at least something she arranged to get her daughter out of bed in the mornings, and ended up doing herself).

As a vehicle for Gena Rowlands, Unhook the Stars is a pretty plushy ride. She gets to display the twisted glory of her smile, when an implausible French Canadian trucker, played by Gerard Depardieu, takes a romantic interest in her. The two of them sing "MacArthur Park" in the cab of his rig when he drives her home. But if the film is a love-letter from the director to his mother, it's close to being a rejection-slip sent to his dad. Anything less like the American independent tradition would be hard to imagine.

To some extent, the rawness of John Cassavetes's films was a pose, and the calculated roughness of technique in the early films as much a rhetorical device as anything else. Characters spilt their guts because that was what the actors were good at, not necessarily because their situation compelled them. In Unhook the Stars, everything is processed and prepared. Undercurrent hardly exists. A six- year-old boy deserted by a violent father shows no signs of trauma, no difficulties of adjustment, however trifling. His mother starts off taking a hard line about abuse ("I ain't from Stepford. I don't get hit") and vows not to take him back. Then she does, and he has learnt his lesson. Everything works out fine.

Hollywood is, to a large extent, based on the myth of second chances but it's a shock to hear Rowlands, who clearly could have had a mainstream career if she had wanted one, mouth the bogus wisdom: "Right here, in this life, you get reincarnated."

Nick Cassavetes is canny enough to make Mildred's adored son unappealing, and so to restrict the film's autobiographical resonance. He's called Ethan (David Sherrill), speaks with the hollow sincerity of Martin Sheen and has a decorative wife who apologises for the mess when there isn't any. They wrangle over what style of decor they've chosen for their huge San Francisco apartment, and agree to describe it as "Parallelist".

Ethan and his wife keep begging Mildred to move to the West Coast and live with them, but then the moment she shows signs of saying yes, they tell her not to make her mind up right away, they know she's got deep roots back home. If only adults could be more like children, and say what they really mean.

One incident at Thanksgiving pinpoints the weaknesses of Unhook the Stars. Monica gets a phone-call from her date, standing her up, just as Mildred is hearing for the first time that Ethan wants her to live with him. Monica's rancorous abuse on the phone alternates with Mildred's more guarded reaction, but maybe "You're full of shit" covers the situation better than "My word". It's just that the conflicts are so pat and the actors are so careful to time their lines (even though they are supposed to be having separate conversations) to ensure that the dialogue doesn't overlap. It's as if independent cinema never happened, and John Cassavetes is good and dead.

`Unhook the Stars' goes on general release from tomorrow