Genre films can be made purely for entertainment or they can be made to explore grander ideas; when you do neither in favor for a little bit of both, it’s almost always a detriment to the aims of a storytelling vision. Julia Hart’s “I’m Your Woman,” – the opening night premiere for 2020’s virtual AFI Fest – feels like it’s trying to be too many things at once, and, simultaneously, like it has a largely well-meaning spirit with very little to really say.
It’s a road movie that’s sort of an intimate inverse of a remix crime caper like “Lucky Number Slevin,” (random pull, I know) which has so much going on that its secret, smaller agenda is masked by all the overlapping crime-world schemes on the surface. Using an aesthetic coat that’s like a light blend of Wes Anderson and The Brothers Coen, the beginning of “I’m Your Woman” is set in a house of lavish interiors, green and yellow wallpaper with matching furniture and adornments. The first shot is of lead character, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan of “The Marvelous Ms. Maisel” fame) wearing a blindingly pink robe and dark sunglasses, camera zooming out to show her comfortably living in her own little world. It’s the 1970s and Jean is the wife of a crook named Eddie (Bill Heck, a stand-out in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” sadly used primarily for plot set-up here), who comes home one day clutching a baby, claiming its theirs (ringing very “Raising Arizona,” a film I’ve been writing about a bit lately). Not long after, an associate of Eddie’s with a bolo tie and wizard’s beard frantically shows up at the front door, pulls 200 grand out of the top shelf of the closet, and tells Jean a man named Cal (Arinzé Kene), is waiting in a car outside.
That’s all the basic set-up and backstory we really get, initially, but the film slowly reveals how much deeper things go as Cal’s connection to Eddie comes to light. After spending some time on the infinite void of pavement, a cop comes upon them, parked by the side of the road, and immediately displays racial prejudice, asking if Jean is being bothered by the Black gentleman driving the car she was sleeping with a baby in. The pair eventually arrive at a safe house. Cal leaves her with not much more than a secret hotline and a phone number on a piece of paper. Jean is endlessly frustrated by the lack of information and being led around, but he’s being about as professional as he can with her, a fish out of water in this crazy situation in his own right.
Things soon heat up, and Cal’s loved ones become involved – Jean learning that she hasn’t seen the truth that’s been going on around her: she married a long-time thief and a killer. To say more would delve into the hashtag spoiler area, but the second half of the project is a lot more packed full of film than the first. Regrettably, “I’m Your Woman’s” grittier pulp elements are mainly all a backdrop for a family social drama that never feels earned or established enough to overtake the empty gaps in the story. Almost all of the key dramatic beats happen out of sight, off screen – purposefully, seemingly – and grows tiring (I assume this could partly be budgetary, but still).
While its style at least aims for something, it never feels necessary to the narrative like the period works of the aforementioned filmmakers, the historic dressing’s exuberant nature also partially being what removes them from reality. “I’m Your Woman” dabbles in going all in on style at points, but always remains slightly realist on the surface, but the attempts at having a deeper conversation on important subjects tends to ring hollow. It may heighten the proportionality of its genre level for a shootout or chase sequence, but it then dials backs down until a burst of grit is needed again, whether just for momentum, or when reaching a narrative turning point.
When stripped down to its essence, “I’m Your Woman” is ultimately a tale of strength and compassion, but, not so indifferently from Hart’s previous picture, “Fast Color,” (which this writer seemed to be a lot less taken with than most of the Film Twitter community) its empathetic aims are not disingenuous, but do forcibly feel as if they’re coming from a place that’s more emotionally chivalrous than artistically meaningful. Whether intentionally or not, the second half implements a fairly empty Underground Railroad metaphor, and the end of the movie, quite unfortunately, rings very Hollywood White Savior. Wrapping these things into a 70s genre slice is a noble effort, but the long ride there never opens up a particularly deep discussion.